09 Apr

Ann Kibbey, “Iconoclastic Materialism” (1986)

“Iconoclastic Materialism” examines Protestants’ discourse and iconoclasm during the Reformation to understand how they thought about things. Kibbey argues that although Protestants destroyed images, they did not categorically oppose all images or icons.


Historians, according to Kibbey, have misunderstood Protestants’ reactions to images. Kibbey argues that “Puritan iconoclasm no less than Puritan rhetoric, granted substantial importance to material shapes” (42). Protestants iconoclasm was about the right use of material objects. Puritans recognized themselves as images of God, or living icons. Moreover, Kibbey argues that Puritans’ opposition to images was “actually a devoted, if negative, act of reverence, and a very self-conscious one at that” (42). Puritan iconoclasts “believed very deeply in the power of icon” (42).  In other words, Protestants did not see icons and images as empty and meaningless. Images, even if they were bad images, held power over Protestants. Puritans recognized that idols compelled humans to believe in them. Visual figures were a threat to humans because they seemed like they could speak, walk, and act. Puritans felt threatened by idols. Idol invoked fear in viewers. According to Kibbey, “Calvin’s reasoning implies that Protestant iconoclasts believed it necessary to attack the visual images in church sculpture, glass, and painting not because they disbelieved these images but rather because they believed quite strongly in their power” (47).  Protestants believed in the power of icons and idols.


Kibbey’s chapter is important to studies of Protestant material culture. 1) Kibbey recognizes that Protestants held a negative reverence for images. Idols held power over iconoclasts and they instilled fear in humans. Protestants did not recognize idols as dead and meaningless. Idols could act on humans. This is important for understanding 19th century Protestant missions in the United States and missionaries’ infatuation with idols. 2) Kibbey also recognizes that Puritans recognized themselves as living images of God, or icons. This is important for future work on Puritan portraits and gravestones which imaged individual Protestants. Scholars have not yet recognized Puritan gravestones as icons. They were images of living icons and worked in a way similar to other icons.  3) Kibbey also recognizes that Marx’s commodity fetish is deeply rooted in Protestantism. Kibbey suggests that Calvin’s analysis of sacramental bread is a precursor to Marx’s commodity fetish. Both have power that resides outside the material thing. According to Kibbey, “Both Calvin and Marx perceive a contradiction between the ordinary use of an object and the value (spiritual or exchange) that it acquires upon consecration/circulation” (52). Marx’s critique of capitalism is also a critique of Protestantism.  Kibbey’s work is significant because it calls scholars to consider Protestant materialism. Contemporary scholars are still hesitant to recognize the power that things have and had over Protestants.

08 Apr

David Freedberg, The Power of Images (1989)

The Power of Images is not a book about the history of art. It is concerned with “the failure of art history to deal with the extraordinarily abundant evidence for the ways in which people of all classes and cultures have responded to images” (xix). It examines the psychological and behavioral responses to images rather than critical responses. Many of the psychological and behavioral responses had been deemed unworthy of examination because they were “popular,” or “primitive,” non-Western reactions to art. The behaviors involved what many Westerners considered irrational, superstitious, or explicable by magic. In fact, many Westerners engaged in this popular understandings of images. Freedberg suggests that he did not set out to provide an explanatory theory of images. “The aim, instead, has been to develop adequate terms, and to set out the possibilities for the ways in which cognitive theory may be nourished by the evidence of history” (xxii). In other words, Freedberg called for scholars to look at images differently by examining humans’ responses to images.

Freedberg argued that examining the responses to images referred to “the symptoms of the relationship between image and beholder” (xxii). This included the “active, outwardly markable responses of the beholder as well as the beliefs…that motivate them to specific action and behavior” (xxii). But, Freedberg also argued that humans’ responses to images depended on recognizing the efficacy and effectiveness of images. In other words, Freedberg called scholars to examine the power of images. This meant examining the vitality of images, what images appear to do, what people expect images to do, and why people expect images to do anything at all. Freedberg called art historians to examine images in terms of phenomenological evidence (what the viewer observers, sees, thinks, and feels about the images), written evidence in terms of documents about the images and their history, as well as contextual evidence in terms of similar images. Examining responses to images involved taking seriously what humans said about images and recognizing the power that images hold over people.

The chapter “Idolatry and Iconoclasm” examines the paradoxes of iconoclasm. The examples Freedberg gives about acts of iconoclasm, or image destruction, highlight the love/hate and fear/infatuation relationship that people have with images. In either case, people recognize images as powerful. Even so, Freedberg argues that Westerners have repressed these feelings about images because they are troubling. Freedberg argues that idolatry and iconoclasm are rooted in polemics of politics and theology. So, images are tied to ideologies. But, they are also rooted in individual psychopathologies of love and fear. This love and fear comes from the fusion of the image and its prototype. But, historians try to explain away this fusion. According to Freedberg, “it is this intellectual failure to acknowledge the logic of the gaze and the needs it engenders that we must still pursue further” (406). Freedberg call historians to examine acts of iconoclasm to understand why people love and fear images. Iconodules and iconoclasts “Both need images and admit to their power, and in so doing need to control them” (427). This control is usually carried out by words. Even so, people are afraid of the power of images. Freedberg urged historians to recognize their “self-deceptions” and fear of images so that they can analyze the “effect, power, and the success or failure of images” (428).

04 Apr

Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman, “Material Religion—How Things Matter” (2012)

“Material Religion—How Things Matter” offers an introduction to Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality. It introduce readers to the study of religion and things.

Over the past twenty years, historians have been concerned with ideas and beliefs in religion. These are important, but they often dismiss the other aspects of religions. Belief ignores the things that people use in religion. Belief assumes that religion is rational, internal, and about thinking, not feelings, things, and places. The scholarly emphasis on belief can be traced to Max Weber’s dismissive attitude toward religious material culture. Weber emphasized belief as central to Protestantism. He suggested that the further religion progressed, the less it relied on things or material objects. E.B. Taylor also emphasized the belief of religion when he defined religion as animism (the animation of things), which could be explored for its larger meaning. The de-emphasis of materiality can also be traced to Protestants during the Reformation who destroyed Catholic images.

Meyer and Houtman argue that “frontier zones,” where religious cultures meet, are a good place to start examining things. This is especially true of idols and iconoclash. The latter term was coined by Bruno Latour to describe how images gain power through being opposed as idols. The relations between religious cultures can also help scholars understand what W.J.T. Mitchell meant by “bad objecthood.” The terms totem, idol, and fetish are not just different types of things. Their names mark them as bad things; things that carry certain attitudes that influence their use.

The turn to material things has become popular in social sciences and humanities. Scholars have traced ideas about matter and materiality to schools of philosophy. The have examined how things are signs that construct social meaning. Scholars look to nineteenth-century materialism to examine how religions have opposed materiality. In 2000, David Chidester called for a “new materialism.” Others have called this approach material culture and materiality. This approach does not use matter to criticize religion, but rather it uses matter to criticize the study of religion. New materialism and material culture ask how and why things matter to religions and religious peoples. Scholars examine the materiality of religion by studying icons, totems, images, fetishes, idols, inconoclash, bodies, words, commodities, and things.