Captive Images: Christian Devotional Objects in the Early Modern Muslim Mediterranean

Friday, January 4, 2019: 3:50 PM
Crystal Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Daniel Hershenzon, University of Connecticut at Storrs
This presentation focuses on the travels and travails of religious images—including their looting, breaking, and redemption. It argues that devotional objects shaped encounters and relations between Christians and Muslims (including Moriscos and renegades) in the Maghrib. Christian captives in the Maghrib crafted, received, and venerated images, or, if they converted to Islam, handed them over to their former coreligionists. Images’ intermediary role culminated in threats of Muslim rulers and slave owners to break images; threats often carried out. Thus, the circulation of religious images across the sea offers a unique vantage point for the analysis of early modern Muslim iconoclasm—profaning and damaging images—and iconoclasm more broadly. While Christians framed real and imagined Muslim iconoclasm as based on theological prohibitions on figuration, hatred, or avarice, for Muslims it was often grounded in a non-aniconic theology and always served political goals—breaking images was means for rulers to prove themselves spiritual guardians, enhancing their political sovereignty. Images were efficient mediators between these communities because they played a constitutive role for Catholics, which Muslims acknowledged but rejected. This paper positions these contentious objects at the center of the ransom exchanges over which Mediterranean rulers, redeeming friars, and merchants struggled, and analyses them as part of a trans-regional political economy of ransom. By reconstructing objects’ paths, shifting meanings, functions, and the memories these processes imbued them with, this talk stresses the importance of material culture in understanding violent interactions that included not only Christians, but also Muslims, who rejected material representation of the divine.