“What if God was one of us?” asks singer-songwriter Joan Osborne. It’s actually not that hard to imagine God as a person. Many are familiar with the image of God as the deity appears in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam: an old, imperious man with flowing hair and beard. For many raised in Judeo-Christian traditions, the portrayal of Alanis Morissette as God in the movie Dogma is as far from that image as the imagination strays. Beyond this narrow anthropomorphism, however, lie countless aniconic representations of divinity.
Aniconic representations aren’t surprising to find in religions which reject mind-body dualism. In early Buddhist art, for example, the Buddha is sometimes represented by a symbol such as the Bodhi tree rather than a figure. But aniconic representations also have a place in Christianity: in the Paradiso‘s final canto, Dante describes God as three coextensive, multicolored circles, each symbolizing a member of the Trinity. This seemingly abstract final vision becomes a math problem for Dante, who triangulates Christ’s and humanity’s position relative to God. Though not as directly as Dante, William Blake is also part of a Christian aniconic tradition. Consider this object from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Copy B:
The plate is bordered at left and right by a Tree of Jesse motif (typically depicting Christ’s ancestors), and each panel created by the interlocking vines contains a small scene. I’ve written markup for several versions of this image, and in each, these scenes appear differently. As I mention in a previous post, Editorial Assistants in the Blake Archive are taught to describe rather than interpret. This allows us to reveal mysteries for future scholars to explore without foreclosing possibilities. However, the more aniconic and amorphous Blake’s imagery gets, the harder it is to distinguish between interpretation and description. For example: in the left panel third from the top, what is the (presumably) human figure standing over? Editors are tempted to call it a cradle, but that’s a stretch. Can I call it a vertical rectangle? A rectangular blob? It’s puzzling to find the sweet spot between useful description and tenuous interpretation. When I showed this to a fellow editor, we laughed and dubbed the occupants of these scenes “aniconic Aphrodites” after the meteorite housed as a representation of the goddess in her temple at Paphos:
Lumpy though it may be, this rock did not need human embodiment to hold symbolic power for its ancient worshippers. Although Blake probably didn’t intend for this Tree of Jesse’s occupants to be known to history as blobs, their formal distinctiveness is secondary to the significance of the tree motif: forms, likely of living creatures, are protected by twining branches. No matter what is housed within, the supportive structure stands. Perhaps this is why Blake allowed these beings to be less-than-perfectly defined. Perhaps, when we look at this aniconic Aphrodite representing a newborn goddess, we should ask with Stevie Wonder: “Isn’t she lovely?”