Idol Speculation: A peek inside the Smart Museum’s new exhibit

Idol Anxiety, courtesy of Smart Museum

Idols, as described by curator Aaron Tugendhaft’s introduction to the Smart Museum’s new special exhibit “Idol Anxiety,” are worrisome objects. A physical intersection between humanity and the divine, idols have been the subject of devotion and the inspiration of anxiety for millennia, from the still-mysterious Venus figurines of the Paleolithic to more recent sculptural depictions of the body of Christ, so central in Gothic art that in some European cities guilds held a monopoly on their manufacture. The nature of idols as made objects, however, has stimulated anxieties of its own. Created by human hands, but claiming a relationship with the supernatural, idols tread an uncertain ground between veneration as a symbol of divinity and worship as a divinely-imbued object. Using a variety of religious and secular perspectives, “Idol Anxiety” explores the necessarily complex relationship between idols, their makers, and their audiences.

One familiar aspect of that relationship is the flexibility in interpreting the prohibition on graven images shared by Abrahamic religions. Though many Christian sects have encouraged and even required physical representations of divinity, movements against them have exerted a profound effect. The Byzantine emperor Leo III’s eighth-century purge of traditional depictions of Christ and the saints birthed the term “iconoclasm,” and for a time radically altered the practice of the empire’s state religion. Its theological basis combined a fear of paganism, the impossibility of fully depicting holy beings, and by some accounts, Islamic and Jewish influences with the pragmatic benefit of confiscating precious metals from the churches. Eight centuries later, similar conflicts would be associated with the Protestant reformation, and anxieties over the potentially misplaced veneration offered to idols continue to this day.

Of course, the making of idols and their role in religion, politics, and the meaning of daily life hardly began with Christianity or classical polytheism, though examples of idols in these contexts are lushly represented in “Idol Anxiety.” Mesopotamian cult figures from the tiny to the awe-inspiring get their due, and a free guided tour in conjunction with the Oriental Institute (whose vast collection deserves a visit of its own) is scheduled for April 27. Though the available space limits the scope of the exhibit, it presents a fascinating examination of a conflict as ancient as it is compelling.