Ban on images

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The adoration of the golden calf , Nicolas Poussin (1633–1636)

A ban on images or images forbids pictorial representations for religious reasons. The scope of such a prohibition can extend to the images of gods and idols , certain people or even to representations of all creatures. The regulations or clichés of such prohibitions arise from monotheistic religions.


In the world history of religions there have always been cultures that depicted their gods (often en masse), and cultures that pronounced and practiced image bans. The oldest traditional monotheistic religion, that of Pharaoh Akhenaten , did not have a ban on images. She continued the pictorial representations with changes in style.

The ancient Romans and Greeks had a polytheistic religion and depicted their gods figuratively (human-like), just like in Hinduism . According to tradition, the legendary second Roman king Numa Pompilius did not yet know any images of gods.

Of the Teutons , whose religion was also polytheistic, Tacitus says: "Incidentally, the size of the heavenly ones does not find it appropriate to banish the gods in temple walls or to depict them in any way similar to human features". In fact, north of the Alps (long before Christianity prevailed) there are portraits ( rock carvings ) and wooden sculptures (bog finds), which presumably represent gods.

In Judaism , Zoroastrianism and Islam , on the other hand, there were and still are relatively broad-based image bans. With very few exceptions, synagogues and mosques do not contain any depictions of God, religious founders, people or animals . Instead, calligraphic lettering, geometric patterns and plant ornaments are common in Islam .

In Christianity there is for the most part no ban on images, only in parts of Protestantism (especially in the Calvinist Reformed Church ) and the Assyrian Church (at times also in the Orthodox Church ).


A god without images?

In the Tanach there are not only traditions of imagery (mazeba, cherub throne, ark) but also traces of a pictorial worship of God, especially when certain places are combined with archaeological finds. As to whether Adonai had a picture, at least the following points can be considered:

  • Bull images in Bethel and Dan
  • Adonai image in Samaria
  • Adonai image in Jerusalem
  • Throne Chariot with a Pair of Gods (750–620 BC)
  • Yehud drachm (4th century BC)

The bull images are noisy 1 Kings 12 a result of the division of the kingdom. Jeroboam I would like to loosen the religious dependence on Jerusalem and thus also on the king of the southern kingdom Rehoboam. Therefore, he offers two alternative sanctuaries in the northern kingdom, each equipped with a bull image. The bulls are identified with the god who brought the people out of Egypt (cf. also Ex 32). Against the view that the bulls are only pedestals over which the invisible god is enthroned, Bauks argues that there is no epithet "YHWH the bull throne", whereas "YHWH the cherub throne" is known.

An Adonai image in Samaria can be opened up by commenting on the victory of Sargon II on the Nimrud prism as follows: “I counted the gods in whom they trusted as prey”. An exemplary pictorial representation of such a process can be found on a wall relief at Tiglat Pileser III, on which various figures of gods of defeated peoples are transported away. The concrete taking of the booty would require a figurative image of God. In addition, there is the find of Kuntillet Ajrud, on which two deities are depicted, who suggest either Bes or Adonai with his wife (Ashera). On the same pith there is also the inscription "YHWH of Samaria and his Asherah".

An Adonai picture in Jerusalem can also only be inferred indirectly. Some interpreters see in Ps 24: 7-10 and Ps 68: 25-26 allusions to a cult procession during which an image of a god was solemnly carried into the temple.

The throne chariot with a pair of gods (750–620 BC) from Tell Bet Mirsim is sometimes associated with Adonai and his Asherah.

A Jehud drachm (4th century BC) with the inscription Jh (w) (= JHWH) or Jh (d) (= Jehud) was identified with a Zeus-like image of Adonai, whereupon Adonai as the sky god with a winged wheel is portrayed by Falke.

The mosaic ban on images

Moses with the tablets of the law

The ten commandments begin with the first ban on portraits in the Tanach:

“Then God spoke all these words: I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the slave house. You shall have no other gods besides me. You shall not make yourself an image of God or any representation of anything in the sky above, on the earth below, or in the water below the earth. You should not prostrate yourself to other gods or commit yourself to serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God: with those who are enemies of me, I pursue the guilt of the fathers to the sons, to the third and fourth generations; with those who love me and keep my commandments, I show my graces to thousands. "

- ( Ex 20.1–6  EU )

The Latin version of the Vulgate makes it clearer what the “portrait” means: non facies tibi sculptile neque omnem similitudinem quae est in caelo desuper et quae in terra deorsum nec eorum quae sunt in aquis sub terra . So it is a question of a stone or carved idol statue that is used for worship. The Vulgate is based more precisely on the Hebrew text:

לא תעשה־לך פסל וכל־תמונה אשר בשמים ממעל ואשר בארץ מתחת ואשר במים מתחת לארץ

פסל literally translates as sculpture, statue. There are numerous other passages in the Pentateuch that deal with the ban on images:

“For the sake of your life, be careful! For on the day when the Lord spoke to you out of the middle of the fire at Horeb you did not see a figure. Do not run into your perdition and make no image of God that represents anything, no statue, no image of a male or female being, no image of any animal that lives on earth, no image of any feathered bird that flies in the sky, no image of any animal crawling on the ground, and not an image of any marine animal in the water below the ground. When you raise your eyes to the sky and see the whole host of heaven, the sun, the moon and the stars, then don't be seduced! You are not to prostrate yourself before them or serve them. The Lord your God has assigned them to all other peoples everywhere under heaven. "

- ( Dtn 4.15–19  EU )

However, Moses had the ark of the covenant adorned with two cherubim and, at God's instruction, also created the bronze serpent that King Hezekiah had destroyed.

The ineffable name of God

The ban on images has a parallel in God's refusal to reveal his name:

“So Moses said to God: Well, I will come to the Israelites and say to them: The God of your fathers sent me to you. They'll ask me: what's his name? What should I say to them? Then God answered Moses: I am the 'I-am-there'. And he went on: This is how you should say to the Israelites: The 'I-am-there' has sent me to you. Then God said to Moses, Say to the Israelites: The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. That is my name forever and that is how I will be called in all generations. ( Ex 3.13–15  EU ) "

The translation of this passage caused considerable problems. In the Vulgate the passage in verse 14 is translated in the present tense : dixit Deus ad Mosen ego sum qui sum ait sic dices filiis Israhel qui est misit me ad vos ("I am who I am"). However, the ancient Hebrew grammar only knows two tenses, which express the past or future. The divine name YHWH echoes the Hebrew word haja , "to be", "to exist". According to Erich Fromm , naming God's name can best be translated as “My name is nameless”.

Book of wisdom

In the Book of Wisdom , which was not included in the Jewish canon, there is an attempt to explain the origin of image worship among other peoples. As part of the Septuagint, Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but not Protestants, consider it to be part of the Old Testament :

“Depressed by grief that was too early, a father had a portrait of his child, who was quickly taken away; so he honored a dead person as god and introduced secret cults and festive customs among his people. In the course of time the wicked custom solidified and was eventually obeyed as law; the statues received divine veneration by order of the rulers. If people could not honor a king directly because he lived far away, then they visualized the distance; they made a portrait of the revered king, which was visible to all, in order to pay homage with zeal to those who were absent, as if he were present. The artist's ambition led to those who did not even know the king paying him divine veneration. Probably to please the ruler, he offered all his art to make him more beautiful than he was. Carried away by the grace of the picture, the crowd now worshiped as a god who had only recently been honored as a human being. This has become the world's undoing: Under the pressure of misfortune or rulers, people have given stone and wood a name that cannot be shared with anyone. "

- Weish 14.15-22  EU .


Representation of Christ as a geometer. Miniature from a French Bible moralisée , 13th century
The creation of Adam . It shows how God the Father brings
Adam to life with an outstretched forefinger

Early Christianity

From the 3rd century on, the Christian Church was concerned with art. With reference to the prohibition of images in the Old Testament, any religious art was sometimes rudely rejected. Around 380 the apostolic constitutions stipulated that painters, prostitutes, brothel owners, actors and pugilists had to give up their profession in order to be accepted into the church.

However, this point of view was not consistently represented. Gregor von Nazianz and Asterios von Amasea turned against depictions of Jesus at the end of the 4th century because Jesus could not be adequately depicted. However, they did not represent a general ban on images. Other theologians welcomed pictorial representations in order to be able to convey the contents of the Bible to the uneducated sections of the population, who were often unable to read. Around 400 these included Basil the Great , Gregory of Nyssa and Neilos of Ankyra . A serious dispute did not arise from this at the time; Basil the Great and his youngest brother Gregory of Nyssa were close friends with Gregory of Nazianzen.

From the 6th century onwards, the Byzantine Empire increasingly rejected images, while the patriarchates under Arab rule (Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria) and the Pope continued to promote artists. The flight of numerous artists to Rome led to a cultural revival there.


Main article: Byzantine iconoclasm

In the Byzantine Empire , there were two rigorous phases in which, with the support of the emperors, all images were removed from the churches and any new production was forbidden under penalty. In the middle of the 8th century, the Emperor Leo III sat down . and Constantine V for a ban on images. After a liberal interim period, corresponding bans were issued again in the first half of the 9th century under Leo V.


Main article: Reformation iconoclasm

The use of images was highly controversial during the Reformation . At first, when the Protestants appropriated Catholic places of worship, the question arose whether one should only remove figures and representations of saints or whether the churches should be completely cleared out. While Martin Luther and his followers, especially after their experience of the devastation and excesses of the iconoclasm, religiously legitimized images that conformed to the Reformation beliefs, Zwingli and Calvin discarded all pictorial representations in dreams of worship or for other religious use.


Main article: Ban on images in Islam

There is no prohibition of images in the Koran . However, as early as the beginning of the 8th century traditions can be found that wanted to prohibit images made by humans because of God's exclusive creative role. According to the teaching of some Islamic schools of law , the representation of God or of living beings is incompatible with the unity of God . If an artist were to repeat this act of creation through a picture, this would amount to doubting the creator. In 722 there was an iconoclasm under the caliph Yazîd II.

Images of the caliphs appeared on coins early on . Paintings and sculptures were placed in the service of the court with pictorial representations. This relativized the ban on images. Today it essentially relates to the admissibility of the depiction and the question of the portability of God as well as to iconographic portraits of people and animals in mosques . The question of the admissibility of photographic representations of living beings in the religious field has been a controversial issue within Islam since the 19th century.

Cultural and historical significance

The Mosaic ban on images served to distinguish the Mosaic religion, which was conceived as a shepherd religion, from the peasant religion in the Canaanite environment, which knew no such bans. It should prevent the worship of images and deprive the frowned upon magic of a tool. With the conception of God beyond form and image, the priesthood avoided not only superstition, but also any representational form of anthropomorphism . It was the first known attempt to fix the religion , which until then had relied on pictorial representations (as hieroglyphs and pictograms ), to word tradition or the alphabetical script that was invented around the same time and also reproduced abstract thoughts, making the Mosaic religion the first book religion.

The one that cannot be represented

In his treatise The Man Moses and the Monotheistic Religion , Sigmund Freud explained the importance of the imagery and nameless one God:

“We suspect that Moses outdid the strictness of the Aton religion on this point ... his God then had neither a name nor a face, perhaps it was a new precaution against magical abuses. But if you accepted that prohibition, it had to have a profound effect. For it meant a setback of sensual perception against an idea that was to be called abstract, a triumph of spirituality over sensuality, strictly speaking a renunciation of instincts with its psychologically necessary consequences. [...] It was certainly one of the most important stages on the way to becoming human. "

- Sigmund Freud : The man Moses and the monotheistic religion

The sociologist Max Weber also pointed out the spiritualizing effect of the ban on images in his work Economy and Society :

“The Jewish shyness of the 'image and likeness', which was originally caused by magic, reinterprets prophecy in a spiritualist way from its absolutely transcendent concept of God. And at some point the tension of the central ethical religious orientation of the prophetic religion against the 'human work' becomes apparent, which follows from what the prophet sees as a pseudo-redemption achievement. The tension is the more irreconcilable the more transcendent and at the same time the more sacred the prophetically proclaimed God is presented ... For us, the only important thing is the rejection of all actually artistic means by certain, in this sense specifically rational religions, to a large extent in the synagogue service and the old Christianity, then again in ascetic Protestantism. It is, depending on the case, a symptom or a means of increasing the rationalizing influence of a religiosity on the conduct of life . The fact that the second commandment is actually the decisive cause of Jewish rationalism, as some representatives of influential Jewish reform movements assume, goes too far. On the other hand, it is not in the least true that the systematic condemnation of all impartial devotion to the actual formative values ​​of art, the effectiveness of which is sufficiently evidenced by the degree and type of artistic productivity of the pious Jewish and Puritan circles , must work in the direction of intellectual and rational life methodology doubt."

- Max Weber : Economy and Society

Cultural-historical consequences

Due to the ban on images, countless archaeologically valuable cultural assets and tools were either torn down, smashed or burned in several epochs. The phases of tearing down and rebuilding alternated depending on the ruler and the prevailing religion. Even today museums and works of art in crisis areas are in danger of being destroyed for religious reasons.

See also

Individual evidence

  1. cf. Tertullianus: Apologetica 25.12-13
  2. Publius Cornelius Tacitus , 9th worship of gods, Germania (De origine et situ Germanorum liber) , Reclam, Stuttgart, 2000. Latin / German. ISBN 3-15-009391-0 ( online version of a different translation )
  3. ^ Michaela Bauks: Ban on images (AT) Wibilex. Retrieved December 7, 2018 .
  4. Deut 4,16; Deuteronomy 4.23; Deuteronomy 4.25; 5Mo 5.8; Deuteronomy 9:12; Deut 27:15
  5. Erich Fromm, Complete Edition , Volume 6, dtv, Munich 1989, p. 101 f.
  6. Wolf Stadler et al. a., Lexikon der Kunst, Volume 6, Müller, Erlangen 1994, p. 126
  7. Wolf Stadler and anere, Lexikon der Kunst , Volume 6, Müller, Erlangen 1994, p. 126
  8. Wolf Stadler and others, Lexikon der Kunst , Volume 6, Müller, Erlangen 1994, p. 126
  9. Barbara Finster, in: Elger, Ralf / Friederike Stolleis (eds.): Kleines Islam-Lexikon. History - everyday life - culture. Beck, Munich 2001, article ban on images
  10. Barbara Finster, in: Elger, Ralf / Friederike Stolleis (eds.): Kleines Islam-Lexikon. History - everyday life - culture. Beck, Munich 2001, article ban on images
  11. ^ Nimet Şeker: Photography in the Ottoman Empire. Würzburg: Ergon Verlag 2009. ISBN 978-3-89913-739-2
  12. ^ Sigmund Freud , Totem and Tabu, study edition Volume 9, Fischer, Frankfurt 1974, p. 368
  13. Will Durant , Der alten Orient , Volume 3 der Kulturgeschichte der Menschheit , Ullstein, Frankfurt 1981, p. 295
  14. Sigmund Freud: The man Moses and the monotheistic religion, study edition Volume 9, Fischer, Frankfurt 1974, p. 559 f.
  15. Max Weber: Economy and Society , 1922, Sociology of Religion § 11 aE



  • Jack Goody : Representations and Contradictions. Ambivalence Towards Images, Theater, Fiction, Relics and Sexuality. Blackwell Publishers, London a. a. 1997, ISBN 0-631-20526-8 .

Judaism and Christianity

  • Lexicon of Christian Iconography. 8 volumes. Herder, Freiburg (Breisgau) 1994, ISBN 3-451-22568-9 .
  • Friedrich Christoph Schlosser : History of the icon-storming emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire. With an overview of the history of the former rulers of the same. Varrentrapp, Frankfurt am Main 1812.
  • Ign. Heinr. v. Wessenberg : The Christian images, a means of conveying the Christian mind. 2 volumes. Wallis, Constance 1845.
  • Claus Bachmann: From the invisible to the crucified God. The career of the biblical prohibition of images in Protestantism , in: Journal for Systematic Theology and Philosophy of Religion Volume 47 (2005), pp. 1–34.
  • Clemens Lüdtke: The worship of images and the pictorial representations in the first Christian centuries. A dogmatic and art-historical program treatise. Herder, Freiburg (Breisgau) 1874.
  • Christoph Dohmen: The ban on images. Its Origin and Development in the Old Testament. 2nd revised edition with an epilogue added. Athenaeum, Frankfurt am Main 1987, ISBN 3-610-09100-2 ( Bonn biblical contributions 62), (also: Bonn, Univ., Diss., 1984/85).
  • Michael J. Rainer, Hans-Gerd Janßen a. a. (Ed.): Ban on images. Lit, Münster 1997, ISBN 3-8258-2795-X ( Yearbook Political Theology 2).
  • Ingo Baldermann (Ed.): The power of pictures. Neukirchener Verlag, Neukirchen-Vluyn 1999, ISBN 3-7887-1685-1 ( Yearbook for Biblical Theology 13).
  • Kalman P. Bland: The Artless Jew. Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 2000, ISBN 0-691-01043-9 .
  • Jérôme Cottin: The Word of God in Pictures. A challenge to Protestant theology. Translated from the French by Marianne Mühlenberg. With a foreword by Horst Schwebel . Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2001, ISBN 3-525-56195-4 .
  • Eckhard Nordhofen (Ed.): Ban on images. The visibility of the invisible. Schöningh, Paderborn u. a. 2001, ISBN 3-506-73784-8 ( icon image + theology )
  • Günter Frankenberg , Peter Niesen (Ed.): Ban on images. Law, Ethics and Aesthetics of Public Representation. Lit, Münster 2004, ISBN 3-8258-6986-5 ( Article 5. Vol. 1).
  • Tallay Ornan: The Triumph of the Symbol. Pictorial Representation of Deities in Mesopotamia and the Biblical Image Ban. Academic Press u. a., Friborg u. a. 2005, ISBN 3-7278-1519-1 ( Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 213), table of contents .
  • Matthias Krieg, Martin Rüsch, Johannes Stückelberger, Matthias Zeindler (eds.): The invisible image. On the aesthetics of the ban on images . Theological Publishing House, Zurich 2005, ISBN 3-290-17365-8 .
  • Andreas Wagner u. a. (Ed.): God in the word - God in the picture. Imagelessness as a condition of monotheism? Neukirchener-Verlag, Neukirchen-Vluyn 2005, ISBN 3-7887-2111-1 .
  • Jan Assmann : What is so bad about the pictures? In: Iconoclasm. Anthology of the lectures of the "Studium Generale" at the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg in the winter semester 2003/2004. Universitätsverlag Winter, Heidelberg 2006, ISBN 3-8253-5172-6 , pp. 117-133. ( online )


  • Rudi Paret : The Islamic ban on images and the Schia. In: Erwin Gräf (Ed.): Festschrift Werner Caskel . On his 70th birthday, March 5, 1966. Brill, Leiden 1968, pp. 224–232
  • Rudi Paret: Writings on Islam. Folk novel, women's question, ban on images . Published by Josef van Ess . Kohlhammer, Stuttgart a. a. 1981, ISBN 3-17-005981-5 .
  • Sabine Schiffer and Xenia Gleißner: The image of the prophet. The dispute over the Mohammed cartoons. In: Gerhard Paul (ed.): The century of pictures. 1949 until today. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2008, ISBN 978-3-525-30012-1 , pp. 750-759.

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