Augustine and iconographic relativity

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London, British Library, Harley MS 4951, f. 123r

St Augustine refuses to get old. If anything, he gets more and more interesting. We live in an age of icons – not religious icons, but images of all kinds. Our age is also one of a widespread reflection of the nature of imagery. We look at images, we use them, but we also read and write about them. It is therefore hard to see what a 4th-century Christian theologian and philosopher can offer to a debate where names such as Saussure, Baudrillard and Eco crowd the field. Nevertheless, Augustine reflected deeply about the place of signs and images (linguistic, textual and visual) and his observations may be seen as foundational for later theories.

Augustine’s theory of signs can’t even be summarized here. Instead, I  wish to dwell for a moment on a short passage from De Trinitate (book 8, chapter 4) where he advances a general theory of iconographic relativity. What I mean by this is the attachment to the idea that there is nothing wrong with an image that doesn’t conform to its specifics in reality (what we might now call its historical referent). In fact, Augustine argues, it is natural for people to conceive differently of the same object, be it one of visual observation or mental contemplation.

Medieval depictions of historical figures and scenes are well known for their anachronism (as we like to put it). Ancient Roman soldiers dressed in the latest Norman fashion are just one example among thousands. Nor are we ignorant as to why this is so. A large number of theories and ideas have been put forward to explain the apparent indifference to accuracy in the process of medieval historical recollection (although we shouldn’t forget that the first category of the historical consciousness, according to Hegel, is expectation, not recollection, forward-thinking, not back-tracking).

It would be an anachronism, however, to expect Augustine to discuss the anachronism. However, he explains that the human mind is naturally attracted to imagining the countenance, look and shape (facies) of people whom it doesn’t have direct contact with. The anthropology of ikonopoesis (image-making) is clear:

For who is there that reads or hears what the Apostle Paul has written, or what has been written of him, that does not imagine to himself the countenance both of the apostle himself, and of all those whose names are there mentioned?

Augustine makes clear that a person’s historical facies was one, so he doesn’t leave it to imagination to recreate everything according to its own disposition. There is order between imagination and reality. If there be fake news, let everyone know it is fake.

For even the countenance of our Lord Himself in the flesh is variously fancied by the diversity of countless imaginations, which yet was one, whatever it was.

And so he makes no illusion about the departures from historical accuracy, which are not bad as long as we hold the other allegorical and anagogical channels open:

what leads us to salvation is not the image which the mind forms for itself to use for thinking (which may perhaps be far different from what he actually looked like), but according to our mental representation, what sorts of thoughts we have about his humankind.

The image may perhaps be far different from what the reality was. Now look at the image of Christ at the top of this blog. The facies of Christ was fancied by the imagination of this late-eleventh century French illustrator. According to Augustine’s theory, there is nothing more natural than this depiction of Christ. The illustrator has certainly imagined the traits, but he is supposed to have done so, for imaging (mental or graphic) is a task is essential in cognition. There is equality between images depicting reality because, ultimately, whether achievable or not, faithfulness is not everything. We are very far from the Renaissance.

The full passage is given below, in Latin and in translation.

Necesse est autem, cum aliqua corporalia lecta vel audita quae non vidimus, credimus, fingat sibi animus aliquid in lineamentis formisque corporum, sicut occurrerit cogitanti, quod aut verum non sit, aut etiam si verum est, quod rarissime potest accidere; non hoc tamen fide ut teneamus quidquam prodest, sed ad aliud aliquid utile, quod per hoc insinuatur. Quis enim legentium vel audientium quae scripsit apostolus Paulus, vel quae de illo scripta sunt, non fingat animo et ipsius Apostoli faciem, et omnium quorum ibi nomina commemorantur? Et cum in tanta hominum multitudine quibus illae Litterae notae sunt, alius aliter lineamenta figuramque illorum corporum cogitet, quis propinquius et similius cogitet, utique incertum est. Neque ibi occupatur fides nostra, qua facie corporis fuerint illi homine; sed tantum quia per Dei gratiam ita vixerunt, et ea gesserunt, quae Scriptura illa testatur. Hoc utile est credere, et non desperandum, et appetendum. Nam et ipsius facies Dominicae carnis, innumerabilium cogitationum diversitate variatur et fingitur, quae tamen una erat, quaecumque erat. Neque in fide nostra quam de Domino Iesu Christo habemus, illud salubre est quod sibi animus fingit, longe fortasse aliter quam res habet, sed illud quod secundum speciem de homine cogitamus; habemus enim quasi regulariter infixam naturae humanae notitiam, secundum quam quidquid tale aspicimus, statim hominem esse cognoscimus, vel hominis formam. (De Trinitate, VIII, 4, 7)

But it must needs be, that, when by reading or hearing of them [of virtues] we believe in any corporeal things which we have not seen, the mind frames for itself something under bodily features and forms, just as it may occur to our thoughts; which either is not true, or even if it be true, which can most rarely happen, yet this is of no benefit to us to believe in by faith, but it is useful for some other purpose, which is intimated by means of it. For who is there that reads or hears what the Apostle Paul has written, or what has been written of him, that does not imagine to himself the countenance both of the apostle himself, and of all those whose names are there mentioned? And whereas, among such a multitude of men to whom these books are known, each imagines in a different way those bodily features and forms, it is assuredly uncertain which it is that imagines them more nearly and more like the reality. Nor, indeed, is our faith busied therein with the bodily countenance of those men; but only that by the grace of God they so lived and so acted as that Scripture witnesses: this it is which it is both useful to believe, and which must not be despaired of, and must be sought. For even the countenance of our Lord Himself in the flesh is variously fancied by the diversity of countless imaginations, which yet was one, whatever it was. But for our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, it is not the image which the mind forms for itself to use for thinking (which may perhaps be far different from what he actually looked like) that leads us to salvation, but according to our mental representation, what sorts of thoughts we have about his humankind: for we have a notion of human nature implanted in us, as it were by rule, according to which we know forthwith, that whatever such thing we see is a man or the form of a man.

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