Monday, August 17, 2009
Christian Imagery; How Does It Work? Where Does It Come From?
I've always been puzzled by the taste among clergy for Byzantine art. That taste is so pronounced in my parish that I'm concerned (perhaps unjustly) that the restrained Federalist style church built in 1821 that houses my parish may be overwhelmed with incongruous Byzantine imagery. The present interior of my church is a very beautiful rebuilding from the 1980s after fire destroyed that interior for the second time in the church's history. The architect made the inspired decision to use the fire as an opportunity to return to the clarity of the original Wren and Gibbs inspired design. I'm not sure an iconostasis would fit.
During the recent big Byzantine shows at the Met (which I thoroughly enjoyed), I could not help but notice the large number of collars and cassocks in the visiting throng.
I remain a little baffled for this preference out of the vast range of Christian art out there.
I suppose it serves me right because I'm reminded just how irritating art historical know-it-alls can be every time someone tells me that icons are "written," not painted.
I suppose what bothers me about this taste is that it seems to me so proscriptive and over-simplified, that somehow Byzantine art enjoys a certain liturgical privilege that I don't think is quite true.
Above are 3 very different paintings from different periods. All three of them are, on their own terms, sincere and authentic expressions of Christian faith. Orthodox Rublev, Catholic Rubens, and Protestant Friedrich each tried to be as faithful as possible to the Christian faith as they understood it. No one of them is any more or less authentic than the other to my mind.
Perhaps it's time to take a look at where Christian imagery comes from and how it has been used over time by differing traditions. I realize that this is a huge topic about which entire libraries have been written. A blog can only give a superficial look at these issues at best. But why should we consign them to scholars? The Internet is supposed to be about the democratization of information. Pardon my inner socialist, but art and culture are the common posession of all humanity since they come out of shared human experience. They aren't the exclusive property of those with the money to buy their artifacts or to pay for an education to study them. They belong to us all. Christian art belongs to all Christians as well as to all humanity.
One thing I want to avoid in these considerations is a lot of theory. My favorite of all acolyte instructors was the first one I ever had, a classics professor named Harry Weber in St. Louis. He always said that the liturgical action precedes its explanation. Why are there candles on the altar? Originally they were there so the priests could see what they were doing. The symbolic associations of altar candles came later. That outlook resonates with my particular belief that in art, practice precedes theory. In my view, theory articulates what artists are already doing. I've never believed in that German Idealist view that once dominated American universities, that it was the job of the artist to give form to the theorists' ideas. Alberti wrote about linear perspective and chiaroscuro after Brunelleschi and Masaccio invented them and used them. Greenberg wrote about post-painterly abstraction after Pollock started flinging paint and Frankenthaler started staining canvas. A certain amount of theory and theology will be necessary to discuss religious art, but I emphasize that they are largely after the fact. The orthodox theology of the icon did not become fully formed until long after the Iconoclast crisis. The primary sources will always be the works of art themselves.
Something else to keep in mind; the role of imagery in Christianity is an issue that has never been settled. That sounds surprising, but it is true. Christianity embraces a whole range of approaches to imagery from the elaborate theological understandings of the Byzantine tradition to Calivinist doctrines which can be even more proscriptive than the prohibitions of Islam. Eastern and Western Christianity have made very different uses of imagery over time. There was never any real liturgical integration of all those magnificent artworks of the Renaissance. Yes, there is Protestant religious art, and a distinctly Protestant use of imagery.
Islam played a very direct role in the creation of Christian art that I think is vastly underestimated. There are some interesting parallels to the rise of imagery in Christianity, and its appearance in other religions like Hinduism. There are controversies throughout Christianity over the story-telling and didactic roles of imagery. Aesthetics, which we usually think of as a distinctly modern preoccupation, play a large role even in Byzantine liturgical art. So much of what we take for granted as central imagery of the Christian faith, like the Crucifix, appears surprisingly late in history.
So, we'll see where this goes and where it ends up, if it ends up.
Posted by Counterlight at Monday, August 17, 2009