Defending Renaissance art against Orthodox Christians

Renaissance art introduced secular artistic innovations into the traditional Christian iconography such as 3D perspective, natural light, shadow and perhaps most significantly its sensual over tone. A lot of Western religious art from the Renaissance period is almost indistinguishable from the secular art of the time other than by its religious theme.

While the appropriation of pagan elements into early Christian art was traditionally regarded as a ‘Christianisation’ of pagan art (e.g. the traditional pagan motif of the shepherd and his flock was easily propagated by Christians to express Christ the Good Shepherd), Orthodox art historians regard the appropriation of secular artistic elements during the Renaissance as a ‘paganisation of Christian art’, an ‘obscuration’ of the traditional transcendental nature of the Byzantine icon that was achieved in particular through the dissimulation of carnal elements that were later emphasized by Renaissance painters such as Raphael (see Quenot quote below). The traditional reversal of ways of seeing in the traditional icon, e.g. reverse perspective, and the subjection of the iconographer to artistic canons are generally understood by Orthodox theologians of the icon as a challenge to the fallen world in much the same way that the preaching of the Gospel (e.g. the Beatitudes) point in a direction opposite to the ways of the fallen world.

How can one defend the revolutionary upheaval in Catholic art during the Renaissance and the decline in the presence of the icon in Catholic churches? Leonid Ouspensky in The Theology of the Icon even describes the Renaissance as ‘blasphemous’, contradicting the 7th Ecumenical Council that precisely defined the exact role of the icon.

I would be very grateful for some help please!!

My thesis touches upon the aforementioned and I have not found any comprehensive defense of Renaissance art with reference to Orthodox criticism.

Thanks- Leo

Michael Quenot in The icon: Window on the Kingdom (1996, p. 78) argues that the ‘crooked heads, cross-eyes, twisted bodies and bulging bosoms (in Renaissance art), express more the disintegrated state of modern man than his thirst for a reality beyond the material world’.

Michael Quenot in The icon: Window on the Kingdom (1996, p. 78) argues that the ‘crooked heads, cross-eyes, twisted bodies and bulging bosoms (in Renaissance art), express more the disintegrated state of modern man than his thirst for a reality beyond the material world’.

However, a static image of the reality beyond the material world can express a disintegrated perception of the divine entering the material world.

A theory:

If God allows a ‘fall’ we can almost be certain that he will bring things around a second time even stronger than they were before.

I’ve mentioned the movie Mulholland Drive here many times. If it is found that the Shroud of Turin can truly be considered the ultimate icon, then Mulholland Drive can be considered the ultimate mystical revealing of this ultimate icon to the modern world. All art that wasn’t truly transcendent (since the split described above) will in a sense be redeemed, and the devil will have no place to hide anymore within the two worlds of human nature.

Renaissance art was just the final nail in the coffin of iconography in the Catholic church in my opinion. Catholic religious art had already been moving away from traditional iconography. For example, up until the 14th century the icons of the West were the same as those in the East but the theology behind the imagery began to change after that. A specific example is the “halo” or crown of light surrounding the head of a saint. In Orthodox iconography this symbolises divine uncreated light radiating from their divinised flesh but in the West it somehow became a disc floating behind the saints head. As time passed, this disc began to be moved up to float above the saint’s head as it tended to get in the way, obscuring the faces of others in the icons they were depicted in, and it reached it’s final form as a ring of light above the saint’s head in Raphael’s masterpieces. No one dresses up as an angel for fancy dress without the ubiquitous ring of gold tinsle above the head nowadays.
The biggest problem with Catholic art is that its production was taken from the hands of those who followed tradition and put in the hands of secular artists who were free to present their own interpretations, kind of like allowing people to produce their own paraphrases of scripture for use in the church. Some people may produce some extraordinarily beautiful prose, but are likely to obscure or even change the theology described within, particularly if they are secular writers.

John

This is what I tried to describe in my post. I am convinced at this point that God has produced the ultimate icon by way of what appeared to be the ‘secular’ world.

You Eastern Orthodox people who post here are real downers. I’m glad that all of you aren’t like this.

Dear Leao,

The argument proposed by John (Prodromos) and others, though they have a few merits, is really a straw man. The fact of the matter is, the traditional analogy between East and West in regards to this issue is not between icons and paintings, but between icons and statues. Statues in the West serve the same purpose as icons in the East.

Orthodox polemicists, intent on creating as many differences between Catholics and Orthodox as possible, now attack Christian paintings and two-dimensional art as if it was comparable to the iconography of the East. In fact, the West has never claimed such a connection between paintings and icons. Only Eastern polemicists claim the connection to put icons on a pedestal, not for the sake of reverencing icons, but for the sake of creating a greater rift between East and West where there is none.

God bless,

Greg

[quote=GAssisi]Statues in the West serve the same purpose as icons in the East
[/quote]

Icons are, as Bishop Kallistos writes, part of the transfigured cosmos and of the age which is to come.

The Orthodox doctrine of icons is bound up with the Orthodox belief that the whole of God’s creation, material as well as spiritual, is to be redeemed and glorified.

Icons are pledges of the coming victory of a redeemed creation over the fallen one… The artistic perfection of an icon is not only a reflection of the celestial glory, it is a concrete example of matter restored to its original harmony and beauty, and serving as a vehicle of the Spirit.

Christians, by bodily venerating and kissing an icon of Christ, or of an apostle or martyr, are in spirit kissing Christ Himself or His martyr or His Saint.


“We are unchanged; we are still the same as we were in the eighth century… Oh that you could only consent to be again what you were once, when we were both united in faith and communion!” -Alexis Khomiakov

How can anyone hate renaissance art? They’re so beautiful!

http://www.abcgallery.com/R/raphael/raphael42.JPG

[quote=Grolsch]How can anyone hate renaissance art? They’re so beautiful!
[/quote]

I don’t think anybody said they hated it. I personally find them very beautiful, but they have as much place in church as a Charles Dickens novel has in the Liturgy.

[quote=GAssisi]The argument proposed by John (Prodromos) and others, though they have a few merits, is really a straw man. The fact of the matter is, the traditional analogy between East and West in regards to this issue is not between icons and paintings, but between icons and statues. Statues in the West serve the same purpose as icons in the East.
[/quote]

Take a look at pre 14th century icons and frescos in churches in the West Greg. They follow the same tradition as icons in the East.

Only Eastern polemicists claim the connection to put icons on a pedestal, not for the sake of reverencing icons, but for the sake of creating a greater rift between East and West where there is none.

That’s rich coming from one who constantly accuses the Orthodox of misrepresenting Catholics :rolleyes: And all this time I thought Rome accepted the Seventh Ecumenical Council.

[quote=Théodred]You Eastern Orthodox people who post here are real downers. I’m glad that all of you aren’t like this.
[/quote]

I don’t mean to be but it is hard not to when discussing this subject. :frowning:

As mentioned, the reverence and theology behind icons in the East is identical to the reverence and theology behind statues in the West. Everything Father A has beautifully said about icons is the same description I have learned when I became Catholic with regards to statues. They are windows to the divine, aid in the contemplation of the divine, are kissed and reverenced in exactly the same way as icons, etc.

As John, said, the West has icons (literally), too. Some in the West may not realize it, but the idea behind icons is identical to the idea behind, for instance, the Miraculous Medal, the Image of the Sacred Heart, and to some extent the Image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

God bless,

Greg

P.S. John, for what reason do you suppose Orthodox malign Western Christian paintings. Don’t they not know that such paintings do not serve the same purpose as icons – i.e., are not comparable to icons? If they do, why make a fuss over the difference?

i see a correlation between the ‘christianization’ vs ‘paganization’ of iconic art, and the christianization vs paganization of literature, described and defended very well by cs lewis. i believe he covers the idea in ‘the abolition of man’, but i’ll see if i can find some quotes from him.

his concept, beautifully detailed, is of course that christianity ‘redeemed’ the pagan elements of many cultures - allowing Christ to bring the truths of these art forms to their surface, while downplaying or reducing the emphasis on the weaker, less truthful elements.

this, i think, can be seen in the christianization of renaissance art. the place of the icon, i think, is established pretty strongly in the churches (and, apparently, the minds) of our brothers, the eastern orthodox. however, we can also see how Christ’s redemptive work can breathe fresh life into art following the iconic period, even up to and including modern art.

the new cathedral in L.A., i think, shows how modern art and the Christian message can enhance one another beautifully. this cathedral met, and exceeded, my ‘great expectations’.

[quote=prodromos]I don’t think anybody said they hated it. I personally find them very beautiful, but they have as much place in church as a Charles Dickens novel has in the Liturgy.
[/quote]

Sorry you feel that way. For us they are in keeping with Roman tradition. Just look at the artwork in the Christian catacombs.

Statue of the Good Shephered from the catacombs:
http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/bible/images/jesusshep348.jpg

http://vandyck.anu.edu.au/introduction/earlychristian/L21-08b.jpg

Do you realized that Icons and halos aslo derive from pre-Christian Roman art? They are just given Christian meaning.

Emperor Antonius Pius ca 100AD:

http://www.lope.ca/halo/pius.jpg

Take a look at pre 14th century icons and frescos in churches in the West Greg. They follow the same tradition as icons in the East.

That’s nice but for us art is art, both serve the same function.

The primary defence of Renaissance art with reference to Orthodox criticism appears to be that it helps Christians reflect upon the human side of Jesus’ dual nature. However one of the primary theological disputes between the iconoclasts and iconophiles during the war of Iconoclasm surrounded whether one could create an image of Christ that reflected both His human and divine natures (very important at a time when heresies such as Docetism and Arianism were still being debated). The iconoclasts said it was completely impossible to express Christ’s divine nature in an image and subsequently rejected the icon as heretical. The iconophiles argued in defence of the icon that it was possible to express Christ’s divine nature through the use of image signs, for example the obligatory halo on each and every icon of Christ with the inscription: ‘The One who is’, which is the equivalent of the sacred name of God YHWH.

The argument often postulated by Orthodox iconographers is that the humanisation of Jesus during Renaissance art is tantamount to Arianism as it fails to reflect His divine nature as well as His human nature.

I’m Catholic and like Renaissance art, but theologically I find it very hard to comprehensively defend.

I don’t think anyone has become Arian simply by looking at Renaissance art, on the contrary. I could be wrong though.

[quote=Leao]The iconophiles argued in defence of the icon that it was possible to express Christ’s divine nature through the use of image signs…

thecityofabsurdity.com/index.html
[/quote]

thecityofabsurdity.com/film.html

Wasn’t there a conversion story in “This Rock” magazine where part of the person’ faith journey included exposure to (Western) Christian art?

Greg

[quote=GAssisi] The fact of the matter is, the traditional analogy between East and West in regards to this issue is not between icons and paintings, but between icons and statues. Statues in the West serve the same purpose as icons in the East.
[/quote]

Could you please expand upon the concept that statues in the West have the same function as icons in the East? What are the qualifications needed for such a statement?

For example, it would be very difficult to have a statue expressing the Transfiguration with everything it consists of - the 6 figures, the Divine light, the mountain etc. Icons are surely much better at expressing Christian dogma comprehensively.

However, I’m more interested in icons and statues as aids to hesychast prayer, i.e. a way of stilling the heart and turning it back towards God. Icons are very good at this as there is an emphasis on stillness (through harmonious line and colour) and the Saints depicted are humbly turned towards Jesus in prayer, especially within the Deisis tier of an Iconostasis, encouraging the beholder of the icon to do the same. Statues appear to be similarly still and capture the humility of the Saint before God. This begs the question for me as to whether icons are any better or different than statues in their approach to expressing hesychast spirituality?

thanks for your time : )

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