Iconoclasm and Iconophilia in Othello

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Iconnoclasm and Iconophilia in Othello

In his book War Against the Idols, Carlos Eire argues that iconoclastic resistance to the Medieval Catholic Church began with the gentle scolding of Erasmus and ended as the "shibboleth" of radical Calvinism.1 The use of images in religious instruction and practice was one of the major points of dispute between Protestant reformers and Catholic counter-reformers. Iconoclasm was certainly not confined to radical Calvinism; Anglican reformers, especially those who had spent time in continental Europe as exiles (like John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury), quickly raised the issue in their country, which had its own unique history of religious reform. The discussions of image and idolatry in Calvin and Jewel represent particular theories of the image that derive from but also revise ancient Platonic theories of the image. Reformation iconoclasm brings up issues of ontology (who or what is God?), epistemology (by what means are we to know him? can he be represented to human senses?), and ethics (how does knowledge of God translate into moral action?). Protestant iconoclasts tend to emphasize the epistemological worth (or rather, worthlessness) of religious imagery, while the Catholic iconophiles emphasize the positive moral effects to be derived from the use of images in religious instruction.

Although sparked in the 1520's and 30's, the debate between iconoclasts and iconophiles raged throughout the latter sixteenth century, well into Shakespeare's time. The iconoclastic writings of Zwingli and Calvin had a powerful legacy throughout Europe. Calvin's collected Institutes of the Christian Religion was published in 1559. Perhaps spurred by theological arguments like Calvin's, violent stripping of church imagery and other popular agitation over idolatry took place in Switzerland and elsewhere on the continent. In England, John Jewel's dialogues with Dr. Harding on the subject of imagery, drawing very much on Calvin's arguments, were published in 1565 and again in 1611. During the English Reformation, the churches and monasteries of England were also stripped of their images by some Protestant objectors. It is clear that iconoclasm was an issue not only for elite churchmen--it also captured the hearts and minds of the general population, who were the audience of Shakespeare's theater.

The problem of the image is traced, by many Protestant theologians, to several major scriptural conflicts. The first important reference is God's pronouncement in Genesis: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Gen.

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