Friday Program
Imagination and the Adapted Mind 
Saturday Program

Forbidding Art:
The Problem of Transfiguration as Tool Use

Ellen Spolsky
Bar-Ilan University

If our internal visual representations are as poor as the research on vision and visual imagination suggests, then we can reasonably hypothesize that the use of wall paintings in churches, crucifixes, statues, and all religious icons, is compensatory. They function as representations of absences: fill in gaps, build satisfying patterns, or produce kinesic analogies, somehow making the unfamiliar negotiable. As the Byzantine iconographers proclaimed: "We make the invisible visible!" Given the general insufficiency of human cognitive functioning, that sounds like a hard offer to refuse. Yet, at several periods in the history of western religion, some ideologues did indeed refuse the offer. "Don't show me," 17th century English Puritans said; "I'll just read about it".

The phenomenon of religious iconoclasm raises interesting cognitive questions. Why should normal perception produce anxiety? Could an evolved function be dangerous? Is it that the cognitive result is never satisfactory, as Calvin maintained (God is entirely other than material, and thus, cannot be figured) or is it that the cognitive result is too good, and we might confuse a visual image with the deity itself? (Collins: iconoclasm is a reaction to the fear of imitation.) Is the visual system intrinsically more vulnerable to being confused by imitation? Yes, because we apparently use the same pathways for several kinds of visual experience: for seeing a dog, for seeing a picture of the dog, and for remembering the dog, or imagining one. The use of a memory token as a type clearly is an evolutionary "good trick." Thus, religious art is profitably considered as cognitive tool: in an area of great insecurity (i.e., have one's prayers been heard? will they be answered?), medieval worshippers, quite sensibly used whatever environmental props they could to connect to what they understood as their source of help. Transfiguration, then, by which I mean, the movement from the material to the abstract, or from the art work to the divinity, and back again, is a way of connecting. This easily and endlessly repeatable algorithm, however, is a dynamic driven by its never being quite satisfactory. As Sperber notes: memory and communication transform information. Systematic gaps are produced, as I have argued, between information in different modalities. You don't make the invisible visible without conflict. Perhaps the iconoclast is, then, disowning some knowledge to protect other knowledge.

Once we think of the images as functional rather than decorative, the sheer number of religious images that might have been found in a medieval church is itself telling evidence. Christopher Haigh has found a church inventory from 1529 of his own small parish church in Suffolk, England, which lists 23 images in the small church, not counting the wall-paintings, crosses, stained glass, chalices, monstrances, banners, clothes for the Virgin, etc. This suggests that the work the images were called on to perform didn't get done so easily. It had to be redone, and redone, each new image not quite pulling off whatever it was suppose to accomplish. The problem of representing divinity, of bringing the divine into the life of the worshipper, without simultaneously reducing that deity to just another material object, was clearly what Andy Clark calls an "unruly" and thus a "representationally hungry" problem. And this, I suggest, is what the iconoclasts knew: representing divinity so that it functions in the social system is indeed a problem. One might well want to say, "Thanks but no thanks."

I take the problem of seeing god as an example of how culture can complicate, even cripple, the exercise of evolved cognitive functions. If evolution inclines us in one direction, culture fights back. Even (and this is hardly a secret) self-destructively. Attached to this abstract are two pictures of gods: Titian's Diana and Actaeon and Raphael's Transfiguration. With them, I will argue that if knowledge is power, its pursuit eventually turns its power on itself. Seeking for knowledge, one eventually discovers its insufficiency and gappiness, and thus the permanent need for redoing, starting again (after the expulsion from Eden, after the flood, after the golden calf). Skepticism about what we can know itself stimulates the desire to fill in the gaps. But as Bellow's Henderson complained: "God has not given me as much intuition as I constantly require."


Spolsky, Ellen. Gaps in Nature: Literary Interpretation and the Modular Mind, SUNY Press, 1993.

Spolsky, Ellen. "Doubting Thomas and the Senses of Knowing," Common Knowledge, 3.2 (1994), 111-129.

Ellen Spolsky is professor of English and Director of the Lechter Institute of Literary Research at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. Her recent talks and publications (with links to abstracts or full text) include:

Personal web pages:
 top of page
Friday Program
Imagination and the Adapted Mind 
Saturday Program