On religious imagery

28 07 2008

A comment of mine on the Thulcandra blog

To the idea that representing God the Father in a painting is “blasphemous”:

“Blasphemous” is a harsh word for it. I think the theological principle you are trying to assert is that Christ is the only revelation of God, and to represent Christ as anyone else other than the Man Jesus Christ is inappropriate. This I believe was the decision of the Council of Trullo in 692 that condemned Christ’s depiction as a Lamb. Needless to say, this council’s authority was never undisputed in the West. The theological premise behind this is of course a strong one (Jesus Christ as the ONLY icon of God), but the history of art, even sacred art, is never that cut and dry. While one can argue, for example, that even the Ancient of Days in the Book of Daniel is God the Son, such an understanding has not been consistent throughout Christian history.

The “hard and fast” theory of sacred art in Eastern Orthodoxy only emerged in the first half of last century with the work of Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky. In their minds, Eastern Orthodox iconography was equated to the Biblical canon and its unanimous Patristic exegesis. Icons were a tradition just as Christian dogma and morality are traditions, and any change to them is to be equated with heresy. I believe that is where the first responder is getting his idea that the image you posted is blasphemous. While these ideas may still be “on the books” in Russia and Greece, this did not stop iconographers from adopting modern Western styles and imagery in Eastern Orthodoxy up to very recently. Indeed, even in the halcyon days before the Western captivity of Eastern art, such strange images as the Word of God as Sophia and St. Christopher with a dog head were to be seen in Holy Orthodox Russia itself. It is hard to theologize upon spontaneous sentiments of artists, and as much as we would like to read into history our own ideas about it, it is seldom that neat.

As for the depiction of God the Father, such images appear even in the monasteries of Mount Athos, the sanctum sanctorum of Orthodoxy itself. There is one where God the Father is sitting in paradise with God the Son (a small child) on His lap, done in a very Byzantine style. And the Holy Spirit is always portrayed as a dove in the Theophany icon, and He is not God the Son. I think while the principle that the Word of God is the true revelation of God is something to always be kept in mind, it is not a reason to disparage other forms of art that are done devoutly. Nowhere have such rules been applied with universal rigor, and so a depiction of God the Father is not at all blasphemous. Maybe less correct, but not blasphemous.

On Punishing the Saints

28 07 2008

Over a year ago now, I posted this anecdote,

A widow had only one child whom she tenderly loved. On hearing that this son had been taken [in war] by the enemy, chained and put in prison, she burst into tears, and addressing herself to the Virgin, to whom she was especially devoted, she asked with obstinacy for the release of her son; but when she saw at last that her prayers remained unanswered, she went to the church where there was a sculptured image of Mary, and there, before the image, she said: “Holy Virgin, I have begged you to deliver my son, and you have not been willing to help an unhappy mother! I’ve implored your patronage for my son, and you have refused it! Very good! Just as my son has been taken away from me, so I am going to take away yours, and keep him as a hostage!” Saying this, she approached, took the statue of the child on the Virgin’s breast, carried it home, wrapped it in a spotless linen, and locked it up in a box, happy to have such a hostage for her son’s return. Now, the following night, the Virgin appeared to the young man, opened the prison doors, and said: “Tell your mother, my child, to return me my son now that I have returned hers!” The young man came back home to his mother and told her of his miraculous deliverance; and she, overjoyed, hastened to go with the little Jesus to the Virgin saying to her: “I thank you, heavenly lady, for restoring to me my child, and in return I restore yours.”

-cited by Paul J. Vanderwood in Juan Soldado: Rapist, Murderer, Martyr, Saint

One of the earliest posts I ever wrote told a story similar to this one, and it concerned my family’s devotion to a small image of the the Holy Face, and you can read it again here.

Recently, I encountered two other such anecdotes. The first is from Gumbo Ya-Ya: Folk Tales of Louisiana:

Statues of St. Joseph holding the Christ Child have long been popular for private altars in the homes of New Orleans Creoles; and many New Orleanians carry miniature representations of the saint in small capsules in their pockets or pocket-books. If a favor is asked of St. Joseph and not granted, the figure is sometimes stood on its head as punishment until the wish is fufilled.

St. Joseph is not the only saint who gets punished. In John Ingham’s book, Mary, Michael, Lucifer: Folk Catholicism in Central Mexico, on Saint Anthony’s feast day,

…people take their animals to the church, where the priest sprinkles them with holy water and pronounces a benediction to protect them from harm. Tiny metal figures of animals are pinned to pictures of St. Anthony on family altars. When an animal is lost, villagers put his picture in a box and tie a string around it. When the animal is found, its recovery is considered a “miracle”, and the incarcerated saint is released and rewarded with the miniature image of the animal he has found.

I am tempted to give some form of comment, but I am not going to. Needless to say, this is what I think real religion looks like. He who has ears to hear…