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David Mitchell, McGill University



In Antoine Furetière’s dictionary of 1690, the idol is defined as a false deity, a crafted object of heretical adoration. He equally notes a figurative sense of the term, which can be applied to a person with flat affect—one who lacks spirit, action, and speech (Furetière, II:304). This distinction between literal idols (objects instilled with agency) and figurative ones (living bodies reserved to the point of insensibility) underscores the early modern idol’s wavering negotiation between life and inanimate materiality. In this respect the discourse of idolatry highlights a central aspect of artistic production in the early modern period: the question of the artist’s evocative rendering of animate life in relation to the cult object’s substitutive function as an embodiment of presence.


A critical focus on idolatry in early modern texts draws attention to the the inconsistent boundaries between these two categories. Classical sculpture, for example, was widely acknowledged to be remnant of idol worship from a pagan past, yet it additionally offered a standard of naturalistic accomplishment in early modern art theory. Non-European others likewise served as distant comparisons for thinking through the relationship between craft, materiality, and religious worship that came to the fore in the wake of the Reformation. Indeed, recent studies have emphasized the extent to which non-European cultures deemed idolatrous were frequent points of reference in debates over confessional conflict within Europe (Cole and Zorach, 5). For example, it has been observed that seventeenth-century protestant scholars, intent on criticizing Catholics, “sought the ammunition of analogy in Jewish and New World idolatries” (Hunt et al., 2).


Consistent descriptions of non-Europeans as idolaters reduced a range of political relationships to an exotic global imaginary. The term labelled a variety of foreign entities from trade partners and military allies to political enemies and colonial subjects. For the literary audience that that was not directly involved in diplomacy, international trade, military conflict, or colonial mission, these foreign idolaters were related in vague and overlapping representations of imaginary elsewheres.


While identifying idols was primarily an act of discursive re-framing, the topic of idolatry focused on materiality, craft, and perception, so that imagery served a crucial role in the concept’s elaboration. In Engraving the Savage Michael Gaudio focuses attention on the intermedial complexity of the sculptural idol’s rendering in print. He analyzes engraved representation of the religious practice of natives in the “New World” between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries in order to argue for a paradox at work in these images. Though the physical presence of idols as objects was distanced and contained through the draftsman’s optical strategies, the tactility of engravings as impressions from a mettalic matrix could also evoke a relationship with the sacred as mediated through the contact of touch (Gaudio, 97-103). In his analysis of such multi-valent reference, Gaudio notes a visual correspondence between engraved representations of Veronica’s Sudarium and the symmetrical frontality of a native american deity, as rendered by Theodor de Bry (Fig. 1).


Gaudio’s study charts the migration of ethnographic images as they were copied in numerous publications. So De Bry’s idol was reproduced by Bernard Picart as an illustration to Jean-Fréderic Bernard’s encyclopedic survey of world religions published in the eighteenth century (Picart, III:202). This ambitious work, authored and illustrated by protestants who had left Catholic France for the Dutch Republic, compared world religions in eight substantial volumes. The introductory essay of the first volume drew numerous parallels between Catholic worship and “the supposed idolatry of the indigenous peoples of the New World or those of Asia and South Asia” (Hunt et al., 212).


The final volume continues this trajectory by comparing Catholic custom to ancient paganism. The text notes that the pagan practice of votive offering continued in Christian worship and attributes the origin of such custom to the weakness of a human mind that sought devotion in sensible objects (Picart 8:99). An illustrative engraving bolsters this claim with visual evidence (Fig. 2). Body parts are scattered across the page. Some sandled feet reference the ancient Roman world. Other severred limbs are tilted so that the viewer can see that they are hollow casts. Atop the page are two disembodied fingers and a staring eye. These items seem to schematize sight and touch as the sensorial underpinning of votive practice. Gaudio’s observation that the dismissive label of idolatry may occlude unacknowledged desire for tactile contact with the sacred (126) offers a helpful model for grasping this engraving’s ambigous engagement with the sensory. As metonyms of their donors’ bodies, the votive objects waver between suggestions of animate illusion and assertions of inanimate objecthood in the neat cuts of sculptural contour and the shadows that indicate the surfaces on which certain items rest.


© David Mitchell, last modified 24 April 2016




Cole, Michael W. and Rebecca Zorach, eds. The Idol in the Age of Art: Objects, Devotions, and the Early Modern World. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009.


Furetière, Antoine. Dictionnaire universel [...]. 3 vols. The Hague and Rotterdam: Arnout and Reinier Leers, 1690.


Gaudio, Michael. Engraving the Savage: The New World and Techniques of CivilizationMinneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.


Hunt, Lynn, Margaret C. Jacob, and Wijnand Mijnhardt. The Book That Changed Europe: Picart and Bernard’s Religious Ceremonies of the World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.


Picart, Bernard. Les Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du mondes [...]. 8 vols. Amsterdam: J.F. Bernard, 1723-1743.






Fig. 1. Theodor de Bry after a drawing of John White, Ther Idol Kiwasa, 1590, engraving. (artwork in the public domain; image held by the British Library).

Fig. 2. Bernard Picart, Votive Figures of the Ancient Romans 1743, engraving, (44 x 27 cm). Getty Research Institute (artwork in the public domain; digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program)

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