Monday, August 17, 2009

Christian Imagery; How Does It Work? Where Does It Come From?

Andrei Rublev, Old Testament Trinity, c. 1410

Peter Paul Rubens, Descent From the Cross, completed 1614

Caspar David Friedrich, Cross in the Mountains ("The Tetschen Altarpiece"), 1809

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.


rick allen said...

I think that for those of us of a certain age--baby boomers—Byzantine style remains something of an exotic novelty. I attended college in the seventies, not an art major, and my Renaissance and Modern Art History class made no reference to Eastern iconography. John Julian Norwich, in the introduction to the first of his three-volume history of Byzantium, notes how even more off-the-map Byzantium was for his generation. He suggests it was an offshoot of Gibbons’ dismissive attitude toward the Later Roman Empire.

There is also, aside from the (relative) novelty, the congruence of traditional Eastern iconography with certain conventionally modern ideas of what painting is supposed to be. I know it’s been half a century, but there was that time when “flatness” was a great virtue, a sign of a painting’s authenticity, its honesty about its surface—and icons do fit the bill. In contrast, the whole emphasis on pictorial accuracy, perspective and modeling in Renaisance/Baroque art was seen by some in the academy as essentially dishonest. It was a complete about-face from the standards of, say, Vasari.

And there was, of course, some degree of boredom associated with the conventional. Religious art descends easily into kitsch, and kitsch in turn jaundices our view of its sources. Two years ago I attended an exhibit of Baroque Spanish Art at the Albuquerque Museum. My wife (an artist herself, and with graduate work in art history) described it as being depressingly like being surrounded by giant holy cards.

rick allen said...

“…the role of imagery in Christianity is an issue that has never been settled.”

I think on the whole that’s true, but it should also be kept in mind, at least for Catholics and the Orthodox, that there is, in fact, a dogmatic pronouncement in favor of the use of images, from what both recognize as the seventh ecumenical council:

“... we declare that we defend free from any innovations all the written and unwritten ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us. One of these is the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly posses one another's message. ... we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God and saviour, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration.”

kishnevi said...

I think the appeal of Byzantine icons lies in the theology behind them. The Western tradition of religious art treats them as illustrations of events or ideas, or else as some sort of active contemplation or meditation by the artist on the subject of the painting. The Eastern tradition sees it as a direct window into the holy: we can perceive the holy through it and even receive the holy through grace-- and the creation of an icon as a prayer to the subject of the icon. Rublev was not meditating on the Trinity; he was praying to the Trinity, and at the same time trying to create a channel by which we could pray with him and receive grace from the Trinity.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

And this, dear Kishnvi, is Neo Platonism at melting point ;=)

Ikons come from Egypt. They originally were quite profane portraits of living persons. Then these portraits ended up on the Mumie. A way for the mumie to see and be around the descendants.

Then there is a story about a King at Edessa... An thence the Byzantine tradition.

Counterlight said...

"Ikons come from Egypt. They originally were quite profane portraits of living persons. Then these portraits ended up on the Mumie. A way for the mumie to see and be around the descendants."


More about that later.

Davis said...

The icon thing is a fad. It's been around for a while, but it will gradually go away and put these marvelous works in perspective (no pun intended). They are captivating but foreign, I'd argue, to Anglicanism.

100 years ago all the Episcopal churches had to look as though they came over on the Mayflower from England. That died out after WWII completely.

Works of our time have yet to be appreciated.