Our discussion of literature and art throughout this book continually raises questions of theology and Biblical exegesis, whether it be Norman Rockwell rendering Isaiah, Holman Hunt further on, or Tolstoy or Bulgakov. Our goal in the two chapters devoted to theology is, first, by way of an example, to suggest the shape of an iconographic theology; and then, second, to raise the question of whether, in the wake of modernity, even post-modernity, and “the eclipse of Biblical narrative” described by Hans Frei, such a theology still be relevant and compelling. [Chapter 3]

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ippel, who explains that the “recovery of an iconographic religious experience is the central theme of this book” (10), defines such religious experience as fundamentally opposed to what he terms the logocentric, the difference between the two appears in whether “we encounter God’s presence . . . through texts or through images.” The logocentric “emphasizes both the spoken and written Word and envisions both textual analysis and contemplation, and even meditation, of the text.”  In contrast, the iconographic emphasizes “images, sounds, as in music, and movement, as in a fluid worship that involves both clergy and laity, and so is experiential rather than reflective” (emphasis added).  When he tells us that “the former privileges sermons and the latter sacraments” (10), we realize that Redeemed at Countless Cost takes the side of High Anglicans and Roman Catholics in their struggle, begun in early Victorian days, with Evangelicals of many denominations and sects.

Readers may stumble over the somewhat eccentric use of the term iconographic, since Merriam-Webster defines iconography as follows: “pictorial material relating to or illustrating a subject,” “the traditional or conventional images or symbols associated with a subject and especially a religious or legendary subject,” or “imagery or symbolism of a work of art, an artist, or a body of art.” The Merriam-Webster definition is stretching things a bit, since, as Erwin Panofsky explains, iconology is the proper term for the study of symbols. Nonetheless, the authors make their idiosyncratic use of the term clear enough to follow their arguments and interpretations.

A first chapter, “Introduction: Ways and Means,” begins with the the 1851 British Religious Census that revealed that far fewer people attended church than authorities expected and from there the discussion moves to subsequent attempts to bring people back to the church. These included “the necessity of revival, using the term in an ecumenical sense to signify renewal, within the church,” simply building more churches, the need for a social gospel appropriate to an urban population, and “reaching an accommodation with science” (2). Throughout this valuable first chapter, Dippel examines various nineteenth-century challenges to the literal truth of the Bible and introduces as an ideal the Russian idea of a communitarian sobornost’, which differs from Christian Socialism and the Social Gospel, he claims, because they “disdain any individual responsibility . . . [and] eschew any belief in individual sin” (4). I'm hardly an expert here, but what I have seen of those preaching a social gospel makes me question Dippel’s charge.

As part of his program for religious renewal, Dippel next introduces the notion of the icon, which he argues is primarily

worship rather than art. As such, icon painters are restricted to a strict set of canons governing their composition and presentation. Individual artistic signatures, as in Western art, are therefore understandingly [sic] forbidden. An icon is a door through which we enter and commune with some aspect of the divine essence. Included here are God in all of the Trinitarian manifestations, the holy family, the apostles and disciples, the angelic hosts, and all of the saints. Through this door temporal time and space are fused with eternal time and space into one Eternal Now. The secular and the sacred are collapsed into one. Thus, as both Bennett and Keble argued . . ., when we worship we worship literally in the presence of God and the angels. Icons play an important part in the Orthodox Church’s liturgy. [11; emphasis added]

After this emphasis on icons, the expected discussion of specific Russian icons occurs in a second chapter, “Rosie the Riveter, Norman Rockwell, and Religious Iconography,” which examines Rockwell’s painting in terms of religious imagery. Following the work of a number of scholars, all generously credited, the chapter points out that Rockwell’s Rosie is obviously modeled after Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Isaiah and that the artist placed a halo over Rosie’s head and “with reference to Isaiah’s notion of God, or God’s agents, stomping out the forces of evil, Rosie tramples Mein Kampf, the image of Hitler and so of world’s evil during World War II, underfoot” (27). This is all very well, but I find it very odd that in a book in which figural (or typological) imagery plays such a central role, Dippel apparently doesn’t know that Rockwell has portrayed Rosie in the exact pose found in countless medieval and later statues of a seated Virgin Mary trampling the serpent, an very popular image of the antitype (or typological fulfillment) of Genesis 3:15.

Left: Rosie the Riveter. Norman Rockwell. 1943. Courtesy of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. 2007.178. Right: Christ in the Wilderness. Ivan Kramskov. 1872-74. The State Tretyakov Museum, Moscow. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

After examining Rockwell’s other paintings for their religious meanings, Dippel introduces us to Andrei Rublev’s fifteenth-century The Old Testament Trinity, which depicts the three angels who appear to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18:1-15 and who are taken to represent the trinity. Dippel explains how icons, such as this one, “invite the observer, or believer, if you will, into the picture’s narrative as a participant” (29). What Dippel terms “inverse perspective is the mechanism by which believers enter into and participate in the divine narrative” (29). If so, such experience must be something viewers bring to the image and not something that the painting, which looks very much like Italian art before Giotto, itself produces. Dippel then argues that Rockwell’s paintings, which emphasize an American version of sobornost’, “function in much the same way as icons” (32). Convincing as I find the author’s political readings of Rockwell’s work, I have to conclude that if these works, like the nineteenth-century Russian painters discussed in a later chapter, function like icons, nothing specifically artistic or painterly produces this effect and that it is the associated textual traditions that do so. This emphasis upon the verbal seems counter to much of the book’s argument.

Dippel, who has published three books on seventeenth-century theology, somewhat eccentrically stays close to home in his third chapter, “Richard Hooker and Jeremy Taylor: Iconographic Theology Exemplified,” whereas, as he admits, he could “well have discussed F. D. Maurice or the ‘ritualistic controversy’” (39). One wishes he had, since after all the book’s title states that it will discuss “religious experience from 1850 to 1900.” Chapter 4, “Imaginative Quality of Experience: Resources for an Iconographic Theology,” surveys the history of biblical interpretation with side glances at theories of imagination, King Lear, and those people that the author takes to be key figures, such as Hooker, Hans Frei, Baruch Spinoza, David Friedrich Strauss. An unsatisfactory fifth chapter, “The Recovery of Religious Vision in Nineteenth-century Russian Art,” surveys its subject without placing it in the necessary contexts of contemporary French, German, and British painting from which it obviously seems to borrow.

An interesting sixth chapter, “The Iconographic Dimension of British Popular Culture Fin de Siecle: Plays and Painting,” begins with an examination of four “immensely popular” (142) novels and their dramatic and cinematic adaptations, which Dippel claims “as much as any other development . . . triggered the iconographic restoration which is the thesis of this book” (142) — Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero (1896), Wilson Barrett’s The Sign of the Cross (1896), and Henry Arthur Jones’ Michael and his Lost Angel (1897). This chapter’s discussion of religious drama, like other parts of the book, has some strange omissions, such as not mentioning that both ancient Greek and medieval English drama had their origins in religious ritual.

When I received this book for review, I immediately noticed the color reproduction of William Holman Hunt's The Light of the World on its cover and I assumed the authors or publishers sent it to me because I had written a book on Hunt. Like every reviewer, I checked the bibliography and index to see if my work was mentioned, and as it turned out, I found not the Hunt book but my equally relevant Victorian Types, assigned to the authorship of one George Landon. Some of the book’s other errors are unintentionally amusing, such as when Redeemed at Countless Cost mentions “historical criticism of the Bile” (87). Of course, everyone makes mistakes.  I know I certainly do, but I also know that when I do they cut rather sharply into what Aristotle termed my authorial ethos or credibility. Since I'm not an expert on either Russian painting or literature, I have to take much of what the authors state, particularly factual information, on faith. I was therefore particularly interested in what Dippel had to say about Hunt. He discusses not only The Light of the World but also Hunt’s The Shadow of Death and The Awakening Conscience. He has nice things to say about my comments on the first painting in Victorian Types, but rather surprisingly he doesn’t know important information about the second. He does not know, for example, either that Hunt claimed The Light of the World recorded a vision that turned him from atheism into devout, if idiosyncratic, Christian belief or that it and The Awakening Conscience together form a dyptich in which the first painting presented an allegorical or visionary image of his experience and the second offered one that employed social criticism and styles associated with social realism: the young woman, the rich man’s mistress, begins to play “Oft in the stilly night,” a song she knew in her days of innocence, and suddenly has a vision or conversion experience. Dippel criticizes Bram Dyskstra’s description of the young woman as a “domesticated prostitute,” confessing that “his interpretation perplexes me” (156), but that’s what the painter said she was.

Perhaps more important a problem in a book dedicated to the advocacy of typological readings of scripture, Dippel does not realize that The Light of the World is in many ways an atypical work by Hunt, who after his conversion dedicated years to painting works in which typology enabled him to fuse realistic ethnographic, geographic, and archeological facts with elaborate integrated symbolism. Hunt does in fact create the kind of paintings that Dippel describes as icons, and one could include The Light of the World in that number, but The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, The Scapegoat, and The Shadow of Death better fit that description.

A seventh chapter, “The Religious Experience in Russian Literature,” closes the volume with discussions largely dependent on earlier critics of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Although filled with interesting discussions of art, literature, and theology, the book is, as Dippel admits, “almost a series of essays” (13) rather than a tightly organized volume. The chapter on Rockwell, which begins the book, might work better as a final chapter, and the inclusion of the Russian material demands many more comparisons of it with Anglo-American examples. More serious a problem involves the book’s emphasis upon biblical typology. According to the authors “Figural reading” — reading for types and shadows of Christ and his dispensation — “is, in effect, the literal sense when considered across the whole scope of scripture” (87), and therefore “with an imagination formed by the inexhaustible reservoir of Scripture, reality for the believing reader is that rendered by the text” (87). If I understand their argument, Dippel and Champlin write for an audience of believing Protestants and not in order to convert nonbelievers. They therefore begin with an assumption that their intended reader already not only believes in Christianity but accepts Christ as Lord and Saviour. Starting from this position, one can of course read both Old and New Testaments permeated by Christ and anticipations of him. The problem here, the central problem, appears in the fact that the typological readings of scripture the book advocates depend upon a belief that even the smallest details of the Bible are literally true, something that nineteenth-century geology, study of semitic languages, and simple comparing of quantities given in various passages passages (as Bishop Colenso had done) convinced many that the Bible could not be literally true. Despite all the discussion of Strauss, Frei, and others, the book just seems to bracket all the textual problems that make figuralism difficult if not impossible, put them away somewhere, and ignore them. Perhaps I have misunderstood.

Another equally serious problem lies in the the allegiance to the church party to which the authors belong, for much of their arguments urge the superiority of High Anglican, Russian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic religion to evangelical protestantism, and yet much of what the authors want in their “iconographic religion” can be found in Victorian evangelicalism. According to Redeemed at Countless Cost,

Iconographic religion is experiential. That is to say, it tends to be dynamic rather than static. Logocentric religion is attentive and reflective. Quakers quietly sitting in their meeting houses waiting upon the spirit personifies a static religious orientation, as do the faithful sitting in their pews in a traditional, as in the seventeenth- or eighteenth-century, Presbyterian church patiently attentive to their pastor working through point by point, in accordance with the principles of Ramist logic as elucidated by William Perkins around the turn into the seventeenth-century, the doctrine and applications, or uses, of his text.

By contrast, churches which are preeminently iconographic incorporate movement, movement which often actively folds the laity into liturgical motion, into their services. Think here especially of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions. This emphasis on motion is clearly manifest in the activity regarding the preparation and administration of the Eucharist. It finds expression elsewhere as well. The English church during the medieval and on into the early modem era through the seventeenth-century, and so covering both its Roman Catholic and Protestant identities, celebrated Rogation week every year. The priest, accompanied by cross and Eucharistic host, would lead his flock throughout the parish, offering up prayers and blessings.

The “movement” that book here praises is accurately described, to be sure, but exactly how much movement does the worshipper actually encounter, and how central to the religious experience is it? More to the point are two other issues. First of all, much of the immersive imaginative experience that Redeemed at Countless Cost argues to be central to religious experience seems far more characteristic of nineteenth-century British evangelicals than it does of High Anglicans. Second, where is this “recovery” of so-called iconographic religious experience? In a half century of teaching I encountered few undergraduates who had read any part of the Bible.

Related material


Dippel, Stewart, and Jeffrey F. Champlin’s Redeemed at Countless Cost: The Recovery of Iconographic Theology and Religious Experience from 1850 to 2000. New York: Peter Lang, 2017.

Created 8 March 2018