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Archive for June 5th, 2011

I have often seen, in iconographic polemics, this crucifixion  scene, by Grunewald, juxtaposed with a serene Byzantine image of the same subject.

The ugliness and exaggerated naturalism of the one is contrasted with the beauty of the other, to prove that Western religious art is inferior. One Orthodox polemicist, who is a fine iconographer in the Greek tradition, goes so far as to declare Western naturalism demonic.

There is, of course, one major problem with this. I spent most of my life as a Latin rite Catholic. I visited countless churches, monasteries and shrines. I have lived in a seminary and a friary and been the guest at several rectories and retreat houses. And in all those years I have never seen Grunewald’s Crucifixion anywhere. It is so far from the standard image of the crucifixion in the West that to use it as a straw man is laughable.

Granted, the typical crucifix is naturalistic, and emphasizes the human suffering of Christ. In fact, paintings of the crucifixion are rare; what is more common is the three dimensional image. But apart from Spanish crucifixes, which are pretty gory- though lacking the putrefication  and distortion of the Grunewald cross- for the most part, while Christ is depicted in his suffering human nature, there is a sense of stillness, or at least a restrained portrayal of the horrors of dying on a cross, surely one of the most torturous methods of killing someone that the human mind has conceived.

While this is arguably less sublime than the transcendent Byzantine icon, it is a far cry from the Grunewald painting.

I am on the Orthodox end of the Byzantine Catholic spectrum, and I am an iconographer. It should be obvious that I prefer the Eastern approach to sacred art. And one can certainly find a lot of Western religious art that offers the Christian a false image, like the ubiquitous bearded lady that purports to be an image of Our Lord. Personally, if someone who looked like that came up to me and said “Come, follow me” I’d get as far away from him as I could. But using bad art to make your case is dishonest. Comparing Eastern and Western religious art is really talking about two very different things.

The icon is a work of the Church, not primarily of the artist. The iconographer is not free to make whatever image he desires; there are certain rules and conventions. Granted, this is mostly oral tradition, but it is still binding on the iconographer. And there is a well developed theology of the icon, and a language of iconography that is shared by all in the churches. One reason that icons appear strange to many Western Christians is that they simply do not know the language.

In the Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches the icon is sacramental. Unlike the West, where sacred images are merely devotional, the icons are venerated at every Divine Liturgy In the West the sole instance of this is the veneration of the cross on Good Friday.

Thus the iconographer is like the priest, and is not free to “make it up” as he goes; he must be faithful in doing what the Church prescribes. And like the priest it works “ex opera operato”; if a priest, validly ordained, however unworthy or sinful, enacts the Eucharistic Liturgy as proscribed by the Church he confects a grace giving sacrament; so the iconographer, however brilliant or dull, can make a true icon if he observes the rules.

Of course, unlike the priesthood, there are no iconographic seminaries where unworthy aspirants can be weeded out, no chance to test your vocation. So there is a wide range of talent and quality among iconographers .But just as a priest with no great skill at preaching and no “feel” for the dramatic flow of the liturgy can nevertheless offer a valid Eucharist, so the unskilled iconographer can offer the “word of God in color and line” that is the icon if he follows the rules handed down to him.

In the West, though, there are no canons. Sacred art is a personal project, and the artist is left to make it up on his own. Sometimes this results in brilliance, but sometimes not.  And who can deny that sacred art has been in decline, for the most part, in the West for the last few centuries? True, there are glimmers of light here and there, like in the 20th century revival of sacred art, spurred by Eric Gill, Graham Carey, Ade Bethune, and others, but in truth this never was never rivaled the more common saccharine sentimental sort of “sacred” “art” that predominated in that saddest of centuries. It seems undeniable that Western religious art has been in decline for a very long time.

Before the definitive separation of the Eastern and Western Churches in the 11th century there was no huge gap in the religious art of  the two traditions. Western medieval sacred art was iconographic, even while it lacked the place that Eastern icons held in the liturgy. True, there were present from the beginning many distinctive elements in Western iconography. For example, while images of the Mother of God  had all the traditional elements, the Child looked more like a baby, in keeping with Western emphasis on the human nature of Christ; in the East He is portrayed more like a small man, to emphasize the fullness of divinity within him.

The paths began near the same place, but gradually diverted more and more. When elements of naturalism began to dominate in Western art, beginning in the 13th century, the differences were not pronounced, and elements of the tradition remained well into the renaissance.

But more and more as time went on the tradition was eroded, and the sentimental began to dominate. In time, even halos were often omitted and to all appearances the holy persons portrayed were mere humans. This is completely in keeping with the direction Western piety continued in after the separation of the Churches, with the emphasis on the human nature and very human experiences of Christ.

And while much of this art was lovely, it is not hard to find a straight path from, say, Raphael to the sort of devotional schlock that has often, sadly, been too common in the last few hundred years.

And while it would be easy to endlessly show instances of  bad Western religious art, one could do the same with iconography; there are a lot of mediocre icons out there; just look at the typical Byzantine Catholic or Orthodox church bulletin (where do they get those things, anyway?)

And while I began this article with the intention of criticizing the shortcomings of Western sacred art, the more I though about it the more I realized that a condemnation of naturalism in principle had extreme theological problems. If one cannot approach the Divine Person of Christ by meditating on His human nature how can one be said to believe  in the hypostatic union, the teaching of the early Church Councils that Jesus Christ is truly human and truly divine? Surely the path of the East, which has always sought the glory of divinity, even in portraying the suffering of Christ, is a sure path to sacred art; as I have said, it is like a priest offering grace-filled sacraments by doing precisely what the Church says must be done.

Lacking this theology of the sacred image, in the West much more is dependent on the skill and intuition of the artist. But I would argue that some Western art is sacramental. Beauty is a sort of primal sacrament, leading the soul to transcendence, and the most truly gifted Western artists sometimes produce good and beautiful images that reflect divine glory.

 I think, first of course, of Blessed Fra Angelico. He not only had great skill as a painter, but holiness of life, and his work reflects this. I have seen this Annunciation in Florence, at the Dominican monastery where it was painted (now a museum). I’m afraid no printed image of it does the least justice to the depth of color in this painting when you stand in front of it.

El Greco, too, achieved this level of sacramental beauty, though he had the distinct advantage of beginning as an iconographer. Elements of this early training are evident in the face of this Christ, in his tendency to elongate figures, and in his use of light (iconography is largely about trying to capture spiritual light with paint).

And there are many other instances when naturalism does not mean soulessness; some of the art from the low countries, which had a hyper-realistic attention to detail, creates a sort of radiant effect, and there are many other examples of Western religious art achieving sacramental imagery.

While iconography is a “safer” approach to sacred art, a true work of the Church, and while it is undeniable that as in its liturgy so in its sacred art the West is in great need of retrieving its traditions and critiquing the many wrong turns it has taken, in principle the use of naturalism in religious art should not be rejected out of hand.

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