July 25, 2021

iconophagy, from ancient Egypt to the present day

Interview. To ingest sacred images to draw closer to God, to heal or to strengthen a community… The practice seems astounding to our modern eyes. And yet, the art historian Jérémie Koering shows us that this use is both current over time and widespread in all cultures, or almost.

In The Iconophages. A history of ingesting images (Actes Sud), the first major synthesis on the subject, this professor of modern art history at the University of Friborg (Switzerland) takes us on a journey from ancient Egypt to Byzantium and Rome, in the footsteps of a practice revealing the need for a physical relationship to images condemned by modern rationalism.

Your work constitutes the first major synthesis on the astonishing subject of the ingestion of images. What does this practice consist of?

Jérémie Koering. Iconophagy designates a particular and, for our contemporary eyes, rather strange relationship to images. This experience is not based on the sole vision of a representation, but on the very real absorption of a material image. This way of interacting with the image is crossed by very different issues depending on the time and place, but we can distinguish two main motivations.

First of all, there are the images that we eat to protect ourselves from ailments or to heal ourselves; this therapeutic use testifies to a vertical dimension to the cosmos. Another practice, horizontal, responds to social functions: establishing communities or sharing the same conception of the world through the collective consumption of an image.

You begin your study in ancient Egypt. What was the role of iconophagy in this culture?

Iconophagy is certainly a much older practice, but the earliest proven traces date back to Egyptian civilization, especially during the New Kingdom period – from 1539 to 1069 BCE. It is linked to the divinity Horus, and in particular to an episode from his childhood: stung by a scorpion, he is saved at the last minute by the intervention of Thoth, the magician god.

This story, represented on stelae and statues through hieroglyphics and images, gave rise to incantations associated with a practice of drinking water that was made to run off the surface of the artefact to collect it. protective power.

Also in Egypt, certain images painted on the skin also had the reputation of protecting the patient. They were licked and sometimes ingested for healing.

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