5/11/2014 Captivating Images, Liberating Images: Iconoclastic iconophilia in Poussin’s Adoration of the Golden Calf

Natalie Carnes
(Baylor University)

Part of: Literature, Theology and the Arts Research Seminars. Upper Seminar Room, Wed 5.00 p.m.

Nicholas Poussin’s painting The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-34) takes as its subject the paradigmatic scene of idolatry in the Christian and Jewish traditions. Yet Poussin’s image is far from a simple historical re-presentation or condemnation of idolatry. Instead, the painting suggests the difficulties of waiting for divinity to arrive and the ambiguity of images in that wait. For such a wait, this image produced in the counter-reformation’s wake endorses iconoclasm—but a subtle iconoclasm that is generated by a kind of iconophilia. It is a form of iconoclastic iconophilia centred on desire. This paper elaborates these claims in four stages: 1) by identifying two forms of iconoclasm characteristic of the modern age, the Baconian and the Wittgensteinian; 2) by identifying the Wittgensteinian iconoclasm of Tom Mitchell and Bruno Latour, who interpret the golden calf and offer two non-theological analogs for the iconoclastic iconophilia of the returning Christ; 3) reading Gregory of Nyssa’s own interpretation of Sinai and the golden calf as a vision of the returning Christ and the consummation of the vision of desire, image proliferation, and iconoclasm Latour and Mitchell articulate; and 4) adding a layer of interpretation of Poussin’s painting as an expression of Nyssen’s Wittgensteinian iconoclasm, the iconoclastic iconophilia of infinitely extended desire.

First published: 17 October 2014