Aniconism is the practice of or belief in the avoiding or shunning of images of divine beings, prophets or other respected religious figures, or in different manifestations, any human beings or living creatures. The term aniconic may be used to describe the absence of graphic representations in a particular belief system, regardless of whether an injunction against them exists. The word itself derives from Greek εἰκών 'image' with the negative prefix an- (Greek privative alpha) and the suffix -ism (Greek -ισμός).
Aniconism is a particular case of representation (the absence of images) and taboo (the prohibition of images). The difference is that one expresses only the absence of images, while the other contains also an injunction conceived to regulate their absence. An avoidance and repugnance of representations is called iconophobia, its antonymic reaction being that of an iconodule. When unformalized predispositions or clearly stated legislations are put in practice and enforced, leading to the removal and destruction of representations, the aniconism becomes iconoclasm. Aniconism relates also to censorship, which takes place after a representation was already produced, but before, or shortly after, it is made public, and also involves less violence than iconoclasm. In common usage, "aniconism" is used to designate the absence of paintings and statues, "taboo" characterizes behaviours, "censorship" is applied to written materials and "iconoclasm" to the destruction of paintings and statues.
According to the occurrence considered, the object of aniconism extends to God only, to all deities and saint characters, to legendary and historical characters, to all humans, to animated beings and living beings, and finally to everything existing in the physical or supernatural world.
Some parts of the objects subjected to aniconism are more sensitive than others to representation. The eyes and the face are markers of identity for the species and the individual (the iris pattern is a powerful biometric identifier; portraits are the most common art subject; masks appear throughout cultures as means to protect one's privacy or take a new one; enocculation was supposed to remove the power, life and soul from depictions). The representation of genital parts are often avoided, usually on moral grounds, because they represent biological, social and symbolic power (suppressed through clothing of statues and paintings or digital blurring and ink blackening of photographs).
The forms of representation concerned by aniconism are in a wide sense, as well as etymologically, not restricted to particular ones, thus encompassing visual, auditory, odorific, gustative and tactile representations (examples are the periods of opposition to figurative music in musical history and criticism and the social marginality of actors—mimes of body and language—in many pre-modern societies). However, it is more common to see the term aniconism applied to material occurrences, bi-dimensional (painting) and three-dimensional (statues), thus leaving out ideas, language or performance, which are also types of re-presentation, re-enactment or re-embodiment.
While seemingly trivial to the nonadherent, aniconism has fueled many social unrests and cultural damage throughout history (Byzantine and Reformation iconoclasm) and continues to be an unobtrusive yet determinant factor across social areas, from religion and politics to science and arts.
Aniconism is a gradual phenomenon, having appeared at various times in many cultures across the world and within the same culture during its history. It is usually restricted to specific circumstances of space (figurative images are absent from mosques, but not outside their walls), time (synagogues are not painted, but the oldest preserved one [3rd century CE, Dura Europos, Syria] was), object (in Africa the High God has no statue or painting, but lesser deities do) or modality. The intensity of aniconism is characterized by periodicity (e.g. the alternance of iconoclast and image overloaded periods in Christianity).
The fundamental cause of aniconism is embedded in the problematic nature of representation itself. There is an unavoidable need to represent the world since this is how our cognition works, but what is the validity of a representation not perceptible to our biological senses of something outside their reach or immaterial (God, time, ultraviolet)? Furthermore, how to present a general model by a specific occurrence (everybody knows what a human looks like, but everyone will draw him or her in a different way). Because these are inherent and not transitory problems, they generate a perpetual search for solutions, making of aniconism a continuously fluctuating phenomenon.
Although aniconism is better known in connection to Abrahamic religions, basic patterns are shared between various religious beliefs including Hinduism which also has aniconistic beliefs. For example, although Hinduism is commonly represented by such anthropomorphic religious murtis, aniconism is equally represented with such abstract symbols of God such as the Shiva linga and the saligrama. Moreover, Hindus have found it easier to focus on anthropmorphic icons, because god Krishna said in the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 12, Verse 5, that it is much more difficult to focus on God as the unmanifested than God with form, due to human beings having the need to perceive via the senses. An iconoclastic phase in early Indian civilization is hypothesised, as the Mughal invasions destroyed native Indian idols. Some modern branches of Hinduism, including the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj reject religious images, as Sikhism originally did.
In monotheism, aniconism was shaped by specific theological considerations and their historical contexts. It emerged as a corollary of seeing God's position as the ultimate power holder, and the need to defend this unique status against competing external and internal forces, such as pagan idols, critical humans, and mass society. Idolatry is a threat to uniqueness, and one way that prophets and missionaries chose to fight it was through the prohibition of material representations. The same solution also worked against the pretension of humans to have the same power of creation as God (hence their banishment from the Heavens, the destruction of Babel, and the Second Commandment in the biblical texts, or the myth of the golem in Jewish literature). Sikhism also encourages aniconism: Images or idols of Sikh gurus are not to be worshiped, and actors can't play the role of Sikh gurus in films.
The production of representations involves an expenditure of valuable human and material resources for ends that do not yield benefits critical for the survival of communities and individuals (paintings and statues). Especially in moments of crisis, representations come to be considered as threatening luxuries, that take away resources from where they are needed. Economic reasons are a culturally non-specific factor that has contributed to many instances of aniconism.
Although aniconism is usually related to religion, it is manifest in many cultures and areas of life. A selection is presented below.
Religious art and art with religious references make a substantial part of humanity's artistic production. As such, religious aniconism—discussed below—is in fact much about art. While not usually classified as aniconism, it occurs frequently in profane art, as a quantitative characteristic of amount of details present in objects. Extremes range for example between the 18th-century Rococo and the 20th-century Minimalist art; or between (so to speak "zen") Finnish design and Hippie luxuriance. In relation to Islamic Art, the term "aniconism" appears to have been coined by Oleg Grabar, in the 1987 "Postscriptum" to his The Formation of Islamic Art.
While politics heavily rely on the representation of governors and pretendants as an instrument of power (the presidents on US banknotes and the stylized portrait of Che Guevara are examples where the power comes from the image of dead persons), there is a very short—yet essential to the political process—moment of aniconism. It is the lapse between the removal of the symbols of an outgoing power and their replacement with those of the incumbent. For example, part of the French Revolution was also the smashing of royal statues, as so often repeated during social unrests. The covering of the head of a Saddam Hussein statue with first the US, then the Iraqi flag during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is a special example where the politically offending is hidden from sight before being destroyed. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the fall of Romania's Ceauşescu in 1989 produced (apparently independent) examples of political symbol based on the void — the Hungarian and Romanian revolutionary flags, where the Communist coat of arms are cut out. There are also reclusive leaders who benefit from the absence of their image, such as Taliban leader Mullah Omar, of whom few photographs are known to exist.
Note: A number of modern scholars, working on various cultures, have gathered material showing that in some cases the idea of aniconism in religion is an intellectual construction, suiting specific intents and historical contexts, rather than a fact of the tangible reality (Huntington for Buddhism, Clément for Islam and Bland for Judaism — references in the appropriate follow-up links).
In Africa aniconism varies from culture to culture from elaborate masks and statues of humans and animals to their total absence. A common feature, however, across the continent is that the "High God" is not given material shape. On the Germanic tribes, the Roman historian Tacitus writes the following: "They don't consider it mighty enough for the Heavens to depict Gods on walls or to display them in some human shape.". His observation is not general to all German people as documentary evidence suggests (see Ardre image stones).
In Australian Aboriginal culture there is a prohibition and tribal lore and custom contravening the depiction of the newly or recently dead, including photographs, as this is held to inhibit their passage to the Great Dreaming of the Ancestors. This has led some Australian newspapers to publish apologies alongside obituaries.