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.



9 responses

1 08 2008
Priestly Goth

Perhaps not blasphemous, less correct, sure, and I’d add dangerous. In that so many people I know actually think that God, the Father is an old man with a white beard in the sky. Given that God is not male, and that it seems to me that what allows Christian art and the depiction of divinity is the incarnation, to attempt to depict God other than in Jesus Christ is at best a misunderstanding of the fundamental impulse and theological underpinning of Christian sacred art. In saying this I put myself squarely with Ouspensky and Lossky, but their presentation i find compelling and little to quibble with. I would say that the rejection of the depiction of God the Father needs no defense, but one does need to give a defense for the depiction of God the Father of whom Christ is the image of the Father. a pictoral representation of the Father is redundant and unnecessary as unnecessary as the disciples needing to ask Jesus to show them the Father.
so it does seem to me that depictions of the Father are an artistic mistake for Christian art, one that for reasons I personally don’t comprehend is repeated very often. Especially if the logic of Christian art emerges out of the incarnation. And given that at least in my context the feminist desire to remove “Father” in reference to the first person of the trinity has more to do with the Old bearded man in the sky imagery, than the use of the word, “Father”. Artistically God has been depicted as exclusively male, so they understand “Father” as saying that god is a man with a beard and penis, which is an idolatrous image. So, when I say that God is beyond sex, they look at me blank, and St Gregory of Nyssa’s point that we are not to imagine a man when we say “God the Father” is entirely lost on them because of these depictions.

1 08 2008
Death Bredon

Personally, I believe along with Micheal Quenot, that the most important principle of sacred art (iconography) is God-centeredness — the representation via purposefully unrealistic and non-humanistic stylization of God in his Saints.

What really rubs me the wrong way is Renaissance religious art, which is so realistic and humanistic, that is no longer is sacred art worthy or liturgical veneration, used where authentic iconography — whether Byzantine, Slavic, Coptic, Ethiopic, Syriac or Romanesque (yes, in the first millennium, the West once had excellent iconography dominating the walls of its churches) — should be.

Indeed, the Renaissance image largely depict only the humanity of Christ and his saints. While this is religious art, it i not sacred art. (Note I am not saying that western, religious themed art should is necessarily bad or shouldn’t be done — I can appreciative the shear brilliance and a type of beauty in Michaelangelo’s works a well as anyone. Rather, I am just noting that such art it is not what the Fathers had in mind during the debates of the Seventh Council.)

IOTWs, the religious art of Giotti and progeny belong in museums, not a church.

31 07 2008
Alice C. Linsley

St Theodore the Studite wrote that the Hebrew law against making images was to protect those who “fled the abyss of polytheism” and not to be taken as a hard and fast rule since “He who had given the prohibition to the hierophant Moses immediatley afterwards commanded him: ‘You shall make two cherubim of gold. of hammered work…” (On The Holy Icons, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, p. 24)

He goes on to say that the “prohibiton applies to likening the Godhead to all those creaturely objects such as the sun, the moon, the stars…” (p. 25) Is an image of the Father as an old man a creaturely object? It is impossible to imagine this image as representing the Father as a man since He is shown with the Son. Is not the Beloved Son the perfect image of the Father? He is both fully Man and fully God. His image then is above all other images for those who claim to be His followers.

Speaking to this point, St. John of Damascus wrote, “Neither do I worship an image as God, but through the images of Christ and of the holy Theotokos, and of the saints, I bring worship and honor to God, because of the reverence with which I honor His friends.” (On the Divine Images, SVP, p. 81).

31 07 2008


You write:
“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.”

From Ouspensky and Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, pgs. 204-205, footnote #4:

Although the representation of God the Father, as an old man, with the child – Christ – on His lap and the Holy Spirit as a dove, either between them or on a discus, held by the Savior, bears the title of “fatherhood” (this representation transposes the doctrine of the Filioque into pictorial form) ; it is still a representation of the Trinity, in so far as it strives to depict the three divine Persons. Consequently, without entering into an analysis of its meaning, we should say a few words about it. This theme originated in Byzantium. The earliest representation of this kind known to us is an illustration to the writings of St. John of the Ladder, in a Greek manuscript belonging to the Xith century (now in the Vatican Library, Ms. Grec. 394, fol.7). Later, it passed to the West, where it was accepted as iconography of the Holy Trinity, and thence to Russia. In Russian iconography, it served as the start of those distortions, which followed later under the influence of the West. This representation was forbidden by the Great Moscow Council of 1667 in the following terms: “To represent the God of Sabaoth (that is, the Father) on icons with a grey beard, with his Only Son on His lap, and a dove between Them, is exceedingly absurd and unseemly, since no one has seen God the Father. For the Father has no flesh, and it was not in the flesh that the Son was born from the Father before all ages ; although the Prophet David says : ‘I have begotten thee from the womb before the morning’ (Ps. cix, 3) – yet this birth is not in the flesh, but is beyond all understanding or expression. And Christ Himself says in the Holy Gospel: ‘Neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son…” This birth, before all ages, of the only-begotten Son from the Father should be understood by the mind, but must not and cannot be represented on icons.” (Acts of the Moscow Councils 1666-1667. Moscow, 1893. On icon-painters and the Lord of Sabaoth, c.44) Both the iconography of this image, borrowed from the iconography of the Virgin, and the title “Fatherhood”, show it to be an attempt to represent the pre-eternal birth from the Father, in addition to the human birth from the Mother, But this birth, which is beyond all understanding, is represented as being the birth, in the bosom of the undepictable Father, of the Child, who was born in the flesh from the Mother, and this introduces into the Holy Trinity an anthropomorphical element. Consequently the Council condemns such a representation as a fiction, corresponding neither to the teaching of the Orthodox Church nor to any historical reality. (As to images of the Holy Spirit as a dove, see footnote to the commentary on the icon of the Lord’s baptism.)
Moreover, there appeared in the XVIth century another iconography of Wester origin, also based on imagination, called “Godhead in Three Persons”, depicting God the Father and the Saviour sitting side by side, with a dove between Them. The title again shows an attempt to depict God the Father and the Holy Spirit in physical form.”

If the above reference is factually accurate, it seems that the Great Moscow Council of 1667 was just as hard and fast as Ouspensky and Lossky, and thus their ideas are not so novel.

That there is variation “on the ground” from the Council no reasonable person would deny. There is plenty of kitsch to be found in Orthodoxy (every iconic representation of God the Father I have seen has been kitsch of the worst sort). But what am I to do with that? Does the fact that it happens establish a precedent of praxis and thus theology? If someone shows me “proof” that there were female deacons in four or five places must I accept that as part of Tradition, or even tradition? The Russian Church formally blesses nukes, is it wrong of me to articulate, in Orthodox terms, that this practice is wrong?

If I may, one more thing – David B. Hart, in that conference on Orthodoxy and Augustine put on by Catholics at Fordham, made the comment that before the 20th century no Orthodox made the sorts of arguments against Augustine that Romanides and company do. That may or may not be true. But let us assume that it is. Most of those Orthodox who make such arguments either live or were trained in the West. The arguments they employ against Augustine borrow the methods of the Western academy. Indeed, it is in a Western context of religious pluralism and revisionist styles of history that facilitates the forms of the questions and the forms of the proposed answers. How did we get from point A to point B in the West? What is the intellectual pedigree of such and such thought that I (or we) consider to be error? This line of thinking requires, or at least makes much use of, intellectual methods and an intellectual environment that was not really available to many Orthodox prior to the late 19th century. Thus it should not come as a surprise that there are answers now given that have a different posture and method than seen before – and which connect more dots than were connected before. So even if Ouspensky had been novel (though he is clearly not in this case), this does not necessarily mean that he is wrong. I think that some of Romanides arguments are novel in form, but this alone does not mean that they are wrong. There may not be a development of dogma in Orthodoxy, but there surely has been development of method within the field of history, including theological, iconographic, and ecclesial histories. Some might see it as hypocrisy that Orthodox who have an argument against the West use Western methods to critique the West. I have no problem with this. The great genius of Western thought is its ability to self-critique. Indeed, I have argued that any argument Orthodox might make against the West the West has already made against itself. That Orthodox employ these methods of critique is a good thing, in my opinion, so long as they are also willing to use them to critique themselves. I think that an increasing number of Orthodox scholars are so willing.

31 07 2008

which seem to me to be a case of overzealous piety, not impiety.

Well said.

Depictions of the Holy Trinity with an “Old Man” Father and the “Dove” spirit are found still in Russian and Greek Churches…

I don’t say this in the spirit of saying “See, they do it!” so much as pointing out that FAR too often polemic (often convert) writers and speakers latch on to a very distinctive school of thought on a matter for which their is wide allowable latitude and present their reading of a distinctive school – whether it be on Palamas, the filioque, the matter of if Catholic orders even have grace, or the position of Blessed Augustine…

Well again, WIDE latitude and manifold schools of thoughts and approaches are out there… Yet a subset of very enthusiastic neo-vostochniki that seem to live on the web are VERY quick to seek out, and present the harshest, most polemic, most vitriolic, most daming arguments against all of the “Issues of contention”… and it rather simply DOES NOT need to be like that.

But I rather suspect is suits a lot of the personality types out there who are zealously proud of “what they have found” when “all others are wring”….

So it goes!

30 07 2008
Death Bredon

Rublev’s “Holy Trinity” represents a type (a foreshadowing) of the Trinity — call to mind Christ’s baptism in the Jordan. As such, it is not an (impossible) attempt to directly represent the antitype: the person (hypostasis) of the Father himself as in the “old man” icons, which seem to me to be a case of overzealous piety, not impiety.

29 07 2008

Using “blasphemous” to characterize the “old man” representation of God the Father is indeed over the top and unfortunate. At the same time, I just reviewed the proceedings of Nicea II, and there is no mention there of approving representations of the Father (of course, the fathers of Nicea II weren’t too crazy about statues, either). What we have here, it seems to me, is a tension between, OTOneH, Daniel’s vision of the Messiah together with the “Ancient of Days” (Daniel 7:9-14) and, OTOtherH, John 1:18 (“No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” ) and the traditional line of thought which justifies the use of images in Christian devotion, over against their prohibition in the Torah, on the basis of the Incarnation.

Personally, I think the best solution here is to represent the Trinity per se only by way of the “Hospitality of Abraham” ikon. While this too implies a representation of the Father, I think it significant that no one figure is identified with any one of the Divine Persons.

29 07 2008

The Monks of New Skete (the Byzantine Franciscans who converted to Orthodoxy) have a devotion to St. Christpher the doghead. (the ones who raise and sell and train German Sheperds)

The story of St. Christopher being so handsome that he asked for the head of a dog to not get female attention (and in some stories male) is very interesting to me.

Even Wester Latin Rite Catholics grew up hearing about the St. Bernard dogs and the monks with dogs in the snow.

29 07 2008
random Orthodox chick

Actually, St. Christopher with a dog-head is not that strange.

I am devoted to St. Christopher, the dog-face that he is.

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