Iconicity: the medium of miraculous images

Byzantine aesthetics identified a class of images as acheiropoieta—not made by human hand. These images included so-called miraculous relic images such as Veronica’s veil, and were enlisted in the notorious iconoclasm debates of the 8th century CE in defence of images or icons. According to orthodox church doctrine, the transubstantiated Eucharist is also such a miraculous image: not metaphoric or symbolic but identical with the body of Christ. In similar terms, by which sign and medium are consubstantial, the stigmata (such as received by St Francis) are miraculous “images”. Such consubstantiality might be also considered in relation to pornographic imagery, in which stimulus and response are not only correlated but identical. Technically speaking the media of photography and video might also be classed acheiropoieta; but more pertinent variants of this imaging are the phenomena identified in Gestalt psychology that could be categorized as pareidola (images at fault, or an image beside itself), such as the face of the man in the moon, the infamous “face on Mars”, or UFO photographs. The issue of iconicity surprisingly also has bearing on imagery developed in the scientific visualisation of “invisible” objects: from X-ray imagery to electon-microscopy, MRI and CATscans, and radioastronomy. Perhaps the most intriguing case of an acheiropoieton in medical imaging (one that invokes both the semiotics and aesthetics of pornographic imagery—imagery “beside itself”) is the Visible Human Project. In their different ways, these cases pose a problem recognised by the issue of transubstantation: what happens to the image when sign and substance are the same, when the medium is not only the message, but is also “miraculous”?


Edward Colless is Head of Critical and Theoretical Studies at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne, where he has worked since 2001. He has been employed in several tertiary institutions as a lecturer in art and cultural history, aesthetics, cinema studies, and design with practical teaching in performance and painting. In addition to a steady output of writing (including art criticism, fiction and travel), he has also worked at various times as a professional theatre director, as a filmmaker, installation artist, and architectural assistant.