Civilizations of the Image and of the Word

24 January 2010


In his Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark (which I have cited numerous times in this forum, e.g., in Big Ideas, which post is also relevant to the distinction between the image and the word), Clark draws a distinction between Western civilization before and after the Protestant Reformation. To be sure, his distinction, based as it is on an historical sequence that is in fact no sequence at all but a moment of historical bifurcation, presumes a Protestant perspective on Western civilization. It does not represent a Catholic point of view, as the Catholics certainly did not see themselves as having been superseded by Protestantism, and certainly didn’t view the latter at the next “stage” in the development of civilization. Nevertheless, the distinction is useful.

Illustration for October by the Limbourg brothers as included in Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry (c. 1413-1416).

Clark differentiates the Catholic civilization of the image from the Protestant civilization of the word. And, to be sure, the civilization of medieval Christendom, for which the only universal institution was the Catholic Church, was rich in images. If the famous paintings of the Brothers Limbourg are accurate representations of the castles of the time, the images extended beyond icons, iconography, heraldry, sculpture, and cathedral decoration: the very built environment of the medieval world was populated by fantastic images. We have contemporaneous sources that tell us of the elaborate livery of great estates and their servants, and of the elaborate court ceremonies as well as festivals and celebrations when such livery was paraded with great pomp. Heraldry is part of this tradition as well. It must have been a sight to see.

A medieval servant dressed in livery that identifies the lord that he serves.

There is a dialectic in Western history, like an aesthetic parallel to eros and thanatos: an age of great aesthetic achievement is followed by a age of iconoclasm when the productions of the previous age are systematically destroyed with a greater or lesser degree of violence and ferocity. Perhaps the most famous episode of iconoclasm played itself out in Byzantine Civilization, but the Protestant Reformation probably runs a close second to Byzantine iconoclasm. The richly decorated Gothic shrines of medieval Europe were attacked by mobs who in righteous fury who sought to destroy images once valued above all else. Clark described this righteous fury thus:

“…the motive [for iconoclasm] wasn’t so much religious as an instinct to destroy anything comely, anything that reflected a state of mind that an unevolved man couldn’t share. The existence of these incomprehensible values enraged them.”

Civilisation: A Personal View, Chapter 6, Protest and Communication

And the “…state of mind that an unevolved man couldn’t share” Clark later characterized as “spiritualized emotion”:

“…although the Lutheran reform prohibited many of the arts that civilize our impulses, it encouraged church music. In small Dutch and German towns the choir and the organ became the only means through which men could enter the world of spiritualized emotion…”

Civilisation: A Personal View, Chapter 9, The Pursuit of Happiness

Though Clark seems to assume Protestantism as superseding Catholicism, we see here that he also acknowledges that the Reformation has its origins in a destructive reaction in which that which is “unevolved” in man is allowed free reign, at least for a time. For the civilization of the word to emerge, the ground must be cleared of the civilization of the image.

Whitewashing over icons during the height of the Byzantine iconoclasm controversy.

The printing press arrived just in time for the Protestant Reformation, allowing the mass production and distribution of political and religious pamphlets, making the movement not merely a movement among cultural elites, but a true mass movement. The Bible was translated into vernacular languages. Education and literacy began to spread beyond elites as well. Preaching became the centerpiece of Protestant religious services. As Clark observed, this marked the emergence of a civilization of the word.

The elaborate ceremony of the Catholic Mass was replaced by the austerity of a sermon preached in an undecorated church. The word replaced the image.

It could be argued that we are now on the threshold of the re-emergence of another civilization of the image. The technology of the printing press that enabled the civilization of the word has now been superseded by newer telecommunications technologies that are once again enabling the image to be the primary method of communication and persuasion. Film, television, photocopiers, fax machines, computer operating systems, and worldwide instantaneous distribution of images and videos by way of the internet are giving the image another chance to establish a new civilization. The visual presentation of quantitative data in an intuitively accessible form has become a technological fashion and even a point of pride among those who seek to present their data in an immediately accessible format. If you offer persons the choice between reading a book and watching a video on the same topic, probably the great majority will choose to watch the video. There is an immediacy and a personal presence to the image that appeals to deep instincts (biologically conditioned instincts) of the human soul.

The printing press made the Reformation as mass movement popularized by endless pamphlets, but now the printing press has been superseded by the internet.

In this sense — in the sense of the re-establishment of the image as the central motif of our culture, and perhaps the first signs of the decline of the civilization of the word as it is slowly, gradually, incrementally displaced by a new civilization of the image — our age may be truly revolutionary.

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