Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Worship in Spirit and in Truth: Art vs. Icons

One of the principles of Orthodox icons is the same as the one I have been suggesting regarding hymns. That is, it is not supposed to appeal to the emotions, but to the spirit. It is not supposed to appeal to the senses, but through the senses, to the spirit.

In Orthodox iconography, we try to extract the sensuous elements. We do not, for example, show delicate, glowing, sexy skin or soft, radiant hair or voluptuous curves. (Some of our icons do show one or the other of these, but they still somehow don't end up being realistic enough to be sensuous.) Instead, we seek to depict the deified human soul - and body, of course.

We do not depict a person’s emotional state so much his spiritual state. We don’t show saints with their eyeballs rolled up to the sky in an ecstasy of emotion ...

...much less being emotionally ravished.

(You sort of feel embarrassed, don't you, to look at this? Like you're some sort of a voyeur.)

This is Francis of Assisi, swooning in the arms of an angel. (A half-naked androgynous angel?)

Although Christ came in the flesh and saved us in the flesh, we don’t show Baby Jesus’ bare bottom. Not that we are that prudish, but the point of an icon is to elicit our reverence and worship, not to make us say, "Awww, how cute!"

We don’t even show Him as a cute little Baby at all, but as a miniature adult, to portray His already-adult spiritual condition.

See the difference?

As my priest once said, if you ever saw a pair like this on the street, you'd run! These images are deliberately not realistic. They are written that way precisely to exclude worldly elements such as some of the above-mentioned. The image is not meant as a decoration or as eye candy or as a skillful composition. It is meant to help you enter into the spiritual realm.

We do not dwell on the more gruesome (that is to say, fleshly) aspects of the Crucifixion, because the spiritual facts are what interest us, Christ's triumph over the devil even as He was dying, and His transcendence of suffering, and his divinity, despite what being crucified looked like.

Orthodox icons do not appeal to our sexuality, either. (Not that there's anything wrong with human sexuality, just that to appeal to it instead of to the human spirit is perverse, while to try to reach the human spirit through a sexual appeal won't work.) Orthodox icons do not depict Jesus as effeminate; and whether you are gay or straight, Jesus is not your heavenly boyfriend.

St. John the Baptist wasn't a homosexual, either, although da Vinci, who (obviously!) painted this, almost certainly was.

I do realized that (apart from the two Orthodox icons) these images are not even meant to be icons, but can you sense how worldly they are? What I'm trying to say is not that the things of the body are wrong or bad. We do all sorts of good and necessary physical things all the time; we eat, drink, procreate, go to the bathroom, bathe, get our exercise, have medical check-ups, and brush our teeth. Those are all good things. But they are all meant to be serve our spirit, and hence to be brought into subjection to our spirit, and our spirit to the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, yes, fleshly things become ugly, even if they delight the tongue or eye or ear or emotions. Rather, they are NOT ugly in themselves, but in our misuse of them, to serve our egos instead of our spirit.

True worship is first and foremost spiritual. Then all the rest falls into its proper place. Then the emotions we experience are of the right sort; otherwise we are just getting high on them. Carnal things are not bad; God, after all, created them! But living according to them, seeing the world through a fleshly lens, interpreting Christianity in a worldly way, that indeed is all wrong. St. Paul warns us that if we live by the flesh, we will die by the flesh.

P.S.) Here are a couple of other things the like of which you don't find in Orthodox iconography.

The holy, heavenly bodiless hosts

"St. Dominic Presiding over the Burning of Heretics"


Emily H. said...

Anastasia, did you really have to torture us with SO MANY examples of Western Christian art?! ;P

For myself, it seems the "uglier" the icon, the better it is!

Byzantine, TX said...

Iconography and Western religious art not only developed differently but (as you would expect) from different regions of the world. Historical treatments show a clear line from the endemic art of their respective birthplaces (Rome on one side and the middle east, primarily Egypt on the other).

If you examine the prohibitions of the early Church, the icons we write today would be frowned upon. Take the simple prohibition of rendering Christ with a beard. One early bishop went so far as to say (I paraphrase) "Should a man render our Lord as like Zeus (that is, with a beard), let his hand wither from his body!"

Western art developed somewhat separately from Eastern practice but not entirely. You will also, if you study the development of icons, see that there was cross pollination into and from iconography as the people of the empire traveled, traded, and waged wars (see: A History of Icon Painting by L. Evseyeva).

As you posted there are excesses and simply ugly renderings of religious events in Western art, but the act of beautifying Western temples - when done organically and not by throwing in modern clap-trap - has "provenance" and deserves some measure of respect. I'm just trying to discern if the purpose of the post was to say that the West is full of the ugly, debauched, and tawdry while the East does things properly.

Emily H. said...


Why do you think depicting Christ with a beard became acceptable? Was it merely the effect of the cross-pollination of artistic influence or that after some time the threat of people mistaking Jesus for Zeus became less or was there another factor(s)?

Byzantine, TX said...

The author (if memory serves Fr. Coniaris) seemed to indicate that the Church grew more comfortable with incorporating art and practices from the pagan world as time progressed. So I guess both would be true: the Church grew and was less fearful of outside influence being a contaminant and incorporated those it found beautiful or useful.

If we compare it to the theological / evangelical developments of the Church we can look at St. Justin Martyr who had no problem using the language of the philosophers as a "schoolmaster to bring us to Christ."

Compare him to Tertullian:

"For philosophy is the material of the world’s wisdom, the rash interpreter of the nature and dispensation of God. Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy… What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the Academy to do with the Church? What have heretics to do with Christians? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with all attempts to produce a Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic Christianity!"

Hellenic Christianity used a lot from the Greek philosophers much as Christian artisans borrowed a lot from the artisans of the areas they inhabited.

Take this image from the blog of an Orthodox priest in China as an example:



Tony said...

In regards to the bearded Christ
IIRC, a shroud (not related to the famous one in the west) was discovered in early Christianity that actually depicted a man who had been crucified and showed him to be a bearded man. This was taken to be Jesus, and after that it was more acceptable, then became the norm, to depict a bearded Christ.

In regards to Anastasia's post
Excellent post! I always enjoy seeing someone studying art.

I have to confess I actually like western art, even if I at times disagree with its or depiction. Michaelangelo's work in the Sistine Chapel is simply amazing no matter what religion you belong to, and I get a kick out of Bosch's surreal, if not nightmarish, depictions of Hell.

In regards to sexuality in western art, there is some truth to this, as well as a couple of ideas that I think aren't all that truthful.

For example, it was common for artists to depict Susanna and the Elders in a very, very voyeuristic form: the story of a woman unwillingly confronted by older men was made pornographic, as if we're seeing a naked woman entirely from the man's perspective. It wasn't until Artemisia Gentileschi's work that we had a more realistic depiction from the woman's point of view, where she is seen as the victim rather than the object.

Now there exists among some art history circles the idea that many crucifixion paintings were homoerotic in nature. One art historian even went so far as to claim Jesus had an erection in most of them, and his half-naked state was for arousal purposes. This goes along with common "queer theory" prominent in so many minds, which basically says everything's a homosexual metaphor. Keep in mind I don't mean to write this to support blasphemy, but to make people understand what some historians and critics think of western depictions of religious art.

But it's very important to note the differences between religious art in the east and west. East went for spirituality, while the west went for physical reproduction.

Shamassy Monica said...

Wow - haven't revisited Western religious art in many years. Strange to look at it again.

Thanks for the reflection!

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

No, it is not my intention to say Western religious art is necessarily ugly, debauched, or tawdry, although in my own, personal opinion, the da Vinci of St. John the Baptist does fit that description. And maybe that one of the Sacred Heart.

As for the others, it depends what you want them for. If for decoration, or to please they eye, they are very successful. They just don't work religiously. They aren't for praying purposes. They are very, very secular depictions of religious subjects. I'd object vehemently to having any of them in church.

But I rather like three or four of them. Specifically, the first two are quite fetching, I think, and I'd hang them in my house. (I just wouldn't tell anybody who they were supposed to be.) Also, the ones of little Baby Jesus are very cute.

It's just they are thoroughly secular. And that's the only point of this post, to illustrate the difference between spiritual and worldly. Because it's a hard thing to verbalize, so I thought maybe a dozen pictures would be worth 12,000 words.

William Weedon said...

Do you think your criticism in general would hold for the sort of artwork that adorned Lutheran churches? Consider:


That's the Cranach altar painting from the Torgau Church. How would you classify it?

Tony said...

I would classify it "Not Found - The requested URL /cyberbrethren/image/ was not found on this server."

William Weedon said...

click here

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

The original link did work for me...

How would I classify Cranach's painting? As one I wouldn't put in my church OR in my home!

Well... it conveys a lot of Lutheran theological meaning, unlike some of his other works such as his Venus. Theological, meaning cognitive, meaning. If that is what it is intended to do, it very well succeeds.

(Why is the spurting blood only for Cranach in this scene?)

William Weedon said...

My question is whether it escapes your censure (which I heartily approve) of attempting to emotionally move people by art. I think you are quite correct that this is intended to be a TEACHING painting; it's art in the service of proclamation.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Oh, dear, this is such a difficult subject, so hard to tease apart...

I do not think it is wrong to try to move somebody emotionally by art, whether by painting or dance or music or poetry or whatever. Sharing/conveing the artist's emotion is part of what art is all about, after all. (It's why we don't think of an icon as "art.")Portraying what is beautiful to the senses is also just fine with me. I love a gorgeous vase or sculpture or gem. (Emotional *manipulation*, on the other hand, I abhor in all forms, everywhere, and most especially in a religious setting. I haven't yet given any thought to how one might articulate the difference, but in any case, emotional manipulation is not what I'm talking about here.)

I merely wish to point out that "spiritual" is something different and quite distinct from sensory, or emotional, or sexual. And that each of these can masquerade as "spiritual," can and often do even displace it.

Art *in church* should appeal to the spirit in man, to the Image of God we all bear. Emotions are not that. Sensory beauty is not yet that.

"Cognitive" is not the same as "spiritual", either, if that answers your question, although one can appeal to the spirit *through* the cognition, as *through* the senses.

What it all depends upon is whether a hymn or a painting does that, or appeals JUST to the senses or JUST to cognition. Does it actually *reach* the spirit, or does it stop short at the sense, leaving you just admiring the scenery, or stop short at the emotion, leaving you thrilling to the music, or does it stop short at the cognitive level, leaving you pondering theological concepts?

("You aren't interested in theology," my favorite theology professor at Wake Forest once told me, to my shock. "And if you don't believe me, come with me to next month's theological conference. You'll be bored to tears.

("You're interested in God, and that's not at all the same thing!" And sure enough, he was right; it isn't. At least not in the West.)

Re the St. Ambrose Hymnal, you and I have had this discussion before, concerning hymns attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux:


So it seems likely we can find other hymns in it that still fall short of being spiritual. (Too much heterodox influence???)

William Weedon said...

Yes, but apparently certain of your hierarchs disagree with your conclusions?

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

I suspect it has yet to be brought to their attention.

Tony said...

Ah I see what happened, I was looking at the post in the basic format, rather than on the post's page itself, so the link got cut off. That's why when I copy and pasted the link it didn't work.

I personally like the painting, if not for spirituality then simply as art. It tells a great story and gets a fine point across. In particular I love the slaying of Sin and Death at the foot of the cross.

Steve Robinson said...

The "ecstatic heavenward erotic gaze" is a common theme. I have this poster of a Bouguereau painting that I love, and yes it is "spiritual eroticism". I suppose there is a case that can be made for depicting graphically the "eros of repentance" (an Orthodox phrase BTW), and the "erotic spiritual poetry" of the likes of St. Symeon the New Theologian and Ephraim the Syrian etc.... however that has not made it into the iconographic tradition of the Orthodox Church quite yet, except within some of the Russian "Western" icons. Before I became Orthodox I thought icons were just "bad art". Now I appreciate them as "spiritual art", but I still like some of the Western stuff, and it does indeed resonate on an emotional level. I guess I'm not altogether convinced that is an altogether bad thing yet. Although, that said, I prefer to pray before Byzantine icons.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Hi, s-pm,

You're right, and I'll say it again. Some of this stuff may not be bad. It's just not for prayer. Or worship. It's not spiritual. But that doesn't mean it isn't good in other respects.

And once again, some of it is very pretty. I find the first picture I posted of the Virgin quite charming.

And then again, some of what I posted I find repulsive...

Dixie said...

The "Jesus is my boyfriend" one had me seriously falling out of my chair with laughter--it's a safety issue. You should remove that one!

One of my favorites is the bare bottomed one. My mom had that in her hallway along with a traditional Byzantine Jesus.

I have seen European churches packed to the rafters with Western Art that just take my breathe away...but have to admit the rapture look on some of these selections looks quite unholy.

Nice discussion.