Sunday, September 28, 2008

Once Again...

...with just one example, this time, for simplicity's sake.

I'm going to take another stab at that very difficult task of showing something of the difference between spiritual and emotional (or spiritual and sensory, or spiritual and anything else). Here is an image I posted a couple of days ago in a not very successful attempt.

Do you see anything wrong with this image?

I don't. Okay, you may criticize its sentimentality. I'll grant you that. But it's also well executed, has nice, warm colors, rich textures. There is nothing cheap, tawdry, ugly, decadent, or otherwise bad about it. In fact, it's rather charming, don't you think?

The thing about this picture, and this isn't a complaint, just an observation, is the response it elicits from the viewer. That response isn't necessarily evil. It just isn't spiritual. It's sensory and emotional instead. Let's take a somewhat closer look...
As in many non-Orthodox depictions (wherein aloofness is apparently confused with modesty) the Virgin isn't meeting your gaze. At first glance, she appears to be, but she's actually looking over your head to the heavens. You thus see a beautiful but rather remote Virgin; and you think, How lovely.

You see a very handsome, cuddly, sweet Baby. Awww, how precious!

And that's pretty much what this picture conveys, that an plus appreciation of the colors and textures and composition.

Now compare it with this icon.

How very different is the effect!

What accounts for the difference? For starters, here, the sentimentality and sensuality have been removed; there are no roses, romantic or scenic backdrops, white veils, or bare bottoms. The skin hasn't the tactile appeal of the first image. There is no cute baby fat. Look at the difference in Mary's hands in each image. There is still curly hair on the Baby, but it doesn't look like anything you'd be tempted to run your hand through. The physical beauty of the two in the icon is something you pretty much have to imagine. It is only suggested.

St. Mary, here, is not the beautiful-but-unattainable Virgin so much as the Mother. She meets your gaze; she engages you. She is not just someone whose purity you admire (and/or mildly regret, if you're a man); she is someone you can revere. And talk to.

The Child is a miniature adult, already displaying His spiritual maturity. He is not Someone you might have an urge to squeeze. He is someone you can worship.

There is cognitive, theological meaning in the Theotokos presenting her Child to us and in the Child's right hand, blessing us; but this image is also conducive to spiritual (as distinct from cognitive) insight. You might, for example, inwardly acknowledge the Mother of God as your true Mother, too, and relate to her accordingly. Or you might look at her eyes and see the cross she bore, not only from the death of her Son, but also from having been thought a whore by most people all her adult life. You see what she bore, but you also see the serenity, the radiance, the meekness, with which she bears her sorrow; you detect the joy underneath the trials. You see, in short, that the Holy Spirit has worked Christ's life not only in her womb, but in her living; you can see in her the words of St. Paul, fully realized: "I live, yet no longer I, but Christ lives in me..." You see who you are aiming to become. You renew your commitment to strive for christification.

This image, in short, evokes gratitude and love and prayer. It encourages and reinforces us in the Christian Life. It reaches us at a deeper level than the merely sensory, or merely cognitive, or merely sentimental or merely emotional. That is why it is appropriate for use in church, while the other is not.

They are both nice-looking images; they ostensibly have the same subject matter and there's nothing to censure in either one. But the first is treated in a thoroughly secular fashion; the second, spiritually. The one is for your viewing pleasure (entertainment), while the other is for your spiritual edification.


Ezekiel said...

Note this:

In the picture, Baby and Virgin look "over the shoulder" to be sure ... but the Virgin is merely holding the child; "family portrait."

In the icon, both meet your eyes, to be sure: but the Theotokos directs you to the Christ with her hand! She points the way.

Now THAT is a big difference! She is the Way Show-er!

Anonymous said...

Well, the work you show by William Bouguereau is more of a devotional piece, to be sure. Not likely to show up in too many churches.

I think I have a pretty good grasp of how icons are written and the theology behind them but to my Western, Catholic eyes I must confess they still strike me as too cold. They just don't move me.

Of course, I grew up around the magnificent churches of Bavaria with their glorious Baroque and Racoco art. German woodcarving is spectacular and glorious images of the Virgin holding her Child forth, the Child either pointing to the Scriptures in his hand or raising his right hand in blessing, nothing tawdry or sentimental about it.

To each his own.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Hi, Cristl,

I think I have a pretty good grasp of how icons are written and the theology behind them but to my Western, Catholic eyes I must confess they still strike me as too cold. They just don't move me.

That's the very point. They aren't meant to move us.

P.S.) Yes, I've seen many of those Bavarian churches, and the art indeed is glorious.