The Grotesque as Sacred

1 06 2009

MariaLac

More notes on religious art

What makes an image sacred? People nowadays, who often do not tie beauty in with holiness (as proven by the various monstrosities produced by the modern church) can often come up with various mechanistic solutions to the question. Many would have us think that sacred imagery has to follow very explicit rules and patterns to be holy, and this is perhaps behind the resurgence of interest in “classical” Byzantine iconography, which can be seen in many of the more “upscale” churches. For others, the rules of Christian aestheics can become as complicated as a tract of Karl Rahner or Hans Urs von Balthasar, and still for others they can be traditions that we have lost long ago that it is imperative that we recover, and so on. For most, it can be a strange free for all where anything of a remotely religious subject matter can be considered “sacred”.

It would be beneficial to reflect on the history of one of the more recent popular Catholic images, la Madonna del Rosario, whose religious impresario was the ninteenth century Italian layman, Bl. Bartolo Longo. If one is under the impression that such images fall from Heaven or are painted in some sort of mystical fit of ecstasy, this story would not be very edifying. The basic tale of the painting is that it was purchased by Longo for the bargain basement price of three lire. As Longo describes his first encounter with the painting:

Alas! I felt my heart tighten when I saw it. It’s not just that it was an old and worn canvas, but the face of the madonna, rather than being that of a kindly virgin… seemed to resemble an old hag… Equally disturbing was the ugliness of the other faces depicted. The St. Dominic to the right seemed less a saint than a vulgar imbecile, and the St. Rose to the right, her head crowned with roses, had a largish face that was wrinkled like that of a coarse peasant.

Eventually, Longo acquired enough money to “re-touch” the painting to make it look presentable. It was to be the centerpiece of his new church in Pompei which eventually became a center of pilgrimage and the site of a rather large church. Dozens of miracles were attributed to the painting, and the cult inflamed people’s devotion to the rosary.

Investigate enough into traditional Catholic notions of sacred imagery and you will find thinking not far removed from the animation of idols in paganism. Images do not become sacred because of some rite of the institutional church or because they follow strict rules of Christian aesthetics. There is nothing particularly theologically compelling in images such as the Black Madonnas, the Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos, the Niñopa, the Black Nazarene, and other images of popular devotion of yesteryear. Yet people crawl up on their knees to venerate them, seek miracles and get them even today. There are no hard and fast rules about why this happens, and truth be told the institutional church has had an ambivalent attitude towards them, always trying to infuse some “official Christianity” into what seems to the casual observer to be a purely pagan spectacle.

Catholic thinking since the 1960’s, even in its most “traditional” manifestation, has deemed sacred imagery to be an “optional” luxury in the midst of more important theological trends and developments. This is due largely to what Mircea Eliade would call the “de-sacralization of the cosmos”. For the liberal, the idea that the sacred space of the church is more sacred in itself than, say, the city hall building, is positively medieval: the “People of God” are the Church, so it matters little what it looks like as long as it facilitates their togetherness. They would appeal theologically to Vatican II, and would have a strong argument on the surface of things. For the more “conservative” elements, modern churches seem to be less able to be vessels for theological ideas that they wish to develop within the context of modern Christianity. These include the Real Presence, the necessity of the cult of the saints, the hierarchical priesthood, etc. This is part and parcel of the idea of ecclesial imagery being a “catechism for those who do not read”. For all of these tendencies, it is far from an existential question. For Eliade, and in the ultimate sense, for the average believer of the past, the sacred lies in the abundance of being, in a hierophany of another order “breaking into” everyday life. The problem with religious art in the modern context lies not in the loss of some ancient aesthetic code as defined as the Nicene Creed or the Catechism of the Council of Trent. It lies in the loss of the sense of the sacred, full stop.

This “breaking in” did not necessarily follow laws of artistic principle or propriety. There is nothing aesthetically compelling about the Holy Infant of Prague or el Señor de los Milagros. Indeed, some of them could be quite awful from an artistic perspective, just as the initial painting of the Madonna del Rosario made Bartolo Longo gag. In traditional Catholic thinking, an image was not sacred because it was well-done, it was well-done because it was sacred, which is to say, it worked miracles. Just as sanctity in humans does not merely lie in following a checklist of a moral code, but rather in a showing forth of the divine in real life, so Catholic popular aesthetics has always had the idea of the holy image as hierophany. In the end, this is why such images as the Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde are popular in Mexico, as misguided and repulsive as we would find those cults to be. They are popular because “they work”.

In that respect, I have always been a little dismayed over people who fret over artistic principles thinking that “real Catholic imagery” died in the Middle Ages, or that we must look to the Eastern Orthodox for a real “incarnational” approach to iconography. Such theories are advocated by people who are far removed from the thinking that created the classical works of sacred Christian art in the first place. The spontanaeity and liveliness of popular Christianity can never live up to the theoretical expectations of the modern day Christian run through the desacralizing gauntlet of liberal society. It is these things that we lack, and they are far removed from the totalizing theories that modern thought seeks to create at every turn.


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24 responses

6 06 2009
Visibilium

The Theotokos of Umilenie is Westernized on a couple of levels, and Orthodox are certainly entitled to be critical of it. I’m critical of it. St. Seraphim liked it.

Far more interesting to me is the Coptic argument against Byzantine iconography owing to its graphic depiction of, say, the Baptist’s beheading. Such depictions are insufficiently placid.

5 06 2009
AG

Reflecting more on Leah’s comments about the mass production of “sacred art,” I’m thinking that images fall into at least three different categories nowadays.

The first would be images that are representations of latter-day miraculous/supernatural events: the images of apparitions of the Virgin would be the most obvious examples of this.

The second would be images that are reproductions of miraculous images: copies of the statue of the Holy Infant of Atocha, copies of the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, etc.

The third would be those images that aren’t directly associated with the supernatural or miraculous (beyond the life of Christ), but are at the very least edifying. These would be your (not to be insulting) run-of-the-mill icons or statues of saints.

It seems to me that images in the first two categories are regarded as particularly powerful, with a rather sharp downturn in potency for those in the last category, with the possible exception of images located in churches/shrines of the person or event represented. It also shows that people don’t depend on their local church for their sacred art.

In my own experience, my mother finds a lot of sacred art “pretty.” She’s received a few icons over the years, various statues of saints, etc. But while she acknowledges these images as being beautiful and moving, the only two that get the deluxe treatment are the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a 5 inch statue of Our Lady of Fatima. The Sacred Heart image is one of those golden-glow images that you can buy for $5, but my mom has decided to frame it in a rather nice gold frame and keep a blessed candle lit next to it at all times. The statue of Our Lady of Fatima gets fresh flowers and even crowns made of flowers on certain feast days. These seem to be the only images my mother thinks are worthy of all-out “devotional” treatment – and she’s not even a devotee of the Sacred Heart. Now I would be the first to acknowledge that my mom does not have the most refined aesthetic sense, but I find it rather interesting that she’s particularly mindful of these images associated with supernatural events, while St. Joseph – whom she actually prays to daily – sits on the back of the shelf.

I wonder if with the superabundance of images available, “edifying” just isn’t enough: people want the ones who have provided the most bang for your buck, so to speak. Perhaps they always did, but only recently have been able to deck out their homes with them.

5 06 2009
Adrian

In my homemade and unlettered theology, the importance of religious art, art history and liturgical history has to do with the Communion of the Saints and our respect for the religious expression of those Christians that came before us and are still with us in eternal unity. A Gothic building is probably prettier than a box of concrete to most of us, but it is not superior in God’s eyes. I’ve never seen a new Church I didn’t consider hideous, but that doesn’t mean that a contemporary architect using modern materials couldn’t theoretically build something beautiful. Many ornate 19th century churches are quite ugly, I love the Sacré-Coeur even though it is uglier than a McDonalds.

3 06 2009
Ian Woolcott

Oh brother – what a comment thread.

I thought the original post was great.

3 06 2009
AG

I’ll also say that if you hope to challenge what Arturo – or anyone else, for that matter – writes, asserting “there’s no response to give, you’re wrong, and you don’t know enough to understand” doesn’t constitute an argument. That’s a failure to engage in what was written, and a pretty good indication that you don’t want to discuss the matter anyway.

3 06 2009
AG

“You run a blog whose premise is recasting Catholic religious sensibility according to the thought of an Assyrian hierophant and the 15th century Platonic school in Florence. ”

Huh? If you think this is what Arturo does, then you profoundly misunderstand his use of Iamblichus, Ficino, and Pico della Mirandola (whom he seldom quotes). Their writings are used as tools to explain what Arturo already believes about truth and beauty, not as writings with profound insights to which Catholicism must conform because those two philosophers are just oh so special. As such, the philosophies of this trio have nothing whatsoever to do, in and of themselves, with the religion of Arturo’s deceased grandmother. A major clue that Arturo does NOT believe as you suggest is that he has never suggested a wholesale following of either of these men, or the version of Christianity that Ficino practiced. I’d suggest the real problem, based on your assertion that you are a mere layman and artist, is that you do not have the philosophical training or an inclination to acquire it.

As he recently stated in another comment elsewhere, Arturo is also not just deriving his knowledge of folk Catholicism from books. He actually lived it, as did I, though in a completely different vein from Arturo’s. He is not trying to reconstruct a past Catholicism that he never experienced, and he’s certainly not trying to develop a Iamblichan/Ficino Catholic ideology from which he can derive a worthy Catholic praxis. Nor has he ever tried to mold a one-size-fits-all Catholicism based on their writings. To suggest something along those lines is, again, to profoundly fail to comprehend what Arturo writes, and to fail to recognize that philosophical truths can be found in any number of situations, both sacred and profane. Perhaps you could spend more time asking him questions about this, and less time defending whatever it is you see as your turf.

3 06 2009
DM

Arturo:

You run a blog whose premise is recasting Catholic religious sensibility according to the thought of an Assyrian hierophant and the 15th century Platonic school in Florence. Now, from what I’ve read, your grandmother was a fascinating woman, but I doubt that the remembered religion she practiced had any concern for Marcilio Ficino.

The whole reason to read old books is to find in them some neglected thing of enduring truth and beauty, that can be constructively applied to our own times, and I’m pretty sure that reading old books is something the Catholic religion encourages. How is it that when I do it it constitutes “romanticism” or “ideology” but when you do it it doesn’t?

3 06 2009
Arturo Vasquez

For the record, I have absolutely nothing against Byzantine art, Gothic art, or the creation of the Beuron school, or anything else. I just don’t think that they are very organic in a Catholic context (or what used to be a Catholic context; Marty Haugen is our current context). I have nothing against these things in principal, only in practice. I think that it is a bit forced to make people have to venerate icons if they are not used to it, or to make their churches look like medieval Gothic cathedrals, or sing Hildegard von Bingen at Mass. I suppose you can do all of that, but I still don’t see how that is different from any other weekend hobbyist.

If tradition is whatever one thinks is “old and authentic”, then I think the Bugninis of the world are right to bring things back into the Mass and sacraments things that most traditionalists find objectionable (Communion in the hand, Mass versus populum, etc.) My contention has always been that some traditions just die. They may have been nice, even more “theologically rigorous” than what came afterwards, but they are dead just the same. It remains to be seen if my own “preferences” for the old liturgy and piety will stay alive at this point, and as a mere mortal human being, I am okay with that. It is God’s role to fix the world, not mine. But I will not try to apotheosize an ethos that was long gone centuries before I was born. I think we have had enough of people trying to construct a religion by what they have read in a book, even very erudite people who have devoted “tens of thousands of hours” to study. Leave that to the Anglo-Catholics, the Jungmanns, and the innovators and romanticists of Christian scholarship.

In spite of my love for the old liturgy, I don’t think any Introit has moved me as much as my grandmother’s peers singing in church during Benediction and Mass. Some of the stuff was trite, but some quite traditional. And they couldn’t hit a note with a Howitzer. They would always begin Benediction:

“Bendito, bendito, bendito sea Dios,
Los angeles cantan y alaban a Dios,
Los angeles cantan y alaban a Dios.”

Truth be told, maybe one wouldn’t want them singing an Introit, but then again, when they were young, no one was around to sing an Introit. That was all the music they had, for better or worse. Maybe if we take the whole Pius X phenomenon of the advocating of the archeological constructions of Solesmes as the norm of Catholic music, we could say such “Catholic high art” is the norm. But it only lasted about fifty years, and was not universal at all. All I know is that I, like others, can live without the Introit. But I just know that I see it as a far greater tragedy if we lost the songs of those tone-deaf grandmothers. It may very well happen. That was an organic tradition, not one imposed from above. And we have had plenty of the latter in the last half century. And without any popular foundation, such ” top-down traditions” become the property of the club enthusiast of the niche parish.

And it is equally tragic that the altars of those same grandmothers get dusty, put away in the attic, or disposed of. I lament in my own life that my deceased grandmother’s altar was given over to the dumpster: Sacred Heart, Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Jude, Juan Soldado, Santa Muerte, and all. That is a memory that I and many others indeed remember, and still live at this point. If we are to go to the past, let us go to the one that we remember, and not something that is constructed from the novel theories of books.

2 06 2009
Leah

“Should I continue to study, practice and pray to perfect my work, or give it up and get a job at the local plastic trinket factory, and hope that someone as pious buys whatever I stamp out?”

Mass produced religious art and what I will call “fine art” tend to serve two very different functions. I would imagine that the kind of art that you (DM) produce is out of the price range for the average person. So if Joe or Jane Catholic wants some sacred art in their home, they’ll probably go to the Internet, the Catholic bookstore, or the mall and get an inexpensive print or statue to stick on the mantle. This doesn’t mean that they mistake the $15 Immaculate Heart poster for, say, Murillo’s Immaculate Conception. A mass produced picture that works as part of one’s personal devotion wouldn’t be appropriate to put in a church and vice versa. Or to put it another way, just because one might own an umbrella that has Van Gogh’s The Starry Night on it doesn’t mean that this individual wouldn’t pay $25 to see the original if it comes to their local art museum.

2 06 2009
DM

One wonders why you would interact with him.

Well, I used to think he was interesting, but I suppose it’s my own fault for continuing to pay attention. If I’m touchy on the matter, it is because I have indeed been personally insulted by Arturo on this matter in the past – on a different blog without my knowledge, where I was unable to defend myself – and since he had apologized to me after that last incident, I had thought that I might challenge some of the statements he wrote with my first post here without being accused of “schoolboy romanticism” or its equivalent again.

I am a Catholic layman, a husband, a father and an artist – and as such, my duty is to have the knowledge that enables me to fulfill those duties well. It is not my particular role as a layman to be a theologian or a liturgist any further than is necessary to fulfill my role as an artist, or to spend one more hour in the cloister than I need to spend to know that God wants me to marry. I don’t count it as wisdom for me to act as less of a layman than I am.

And while I am new to my marital and parental roles, I know full well what I have done and learned and sacrificed to make my art. I have a broad portfolio of work to show for it – real things that men can touch with their hands and see with their eyes. I hope one day, that it will be equal to its task, but for now, I can at least be satisfied that I make things, not just opinions. My wife sings music, not opinions. My views on art do not exist for the sake of argument; they are, in my line of work, as practical as anything is practical, and they produce definite results for better or worse. At least, I think that the results substantiate my right to have my arguments attributed to something other than ignorance or ideology.

If Arturo loves his Holy Child of Atocha, I do not begrudge it him – but I wouldn’t want his grandmother’s lullaby sung as an Introit at Mass. And I’m not going to conclude that sacrality in art is wholly subjective – not least because it would mean concluding that my life has been a waste. Put yourself in my position, as an artist striving to be faithful to Catholic tradition. Should I continue to study, practice and pray to perfect my work, or give it up and get a job at the local plastic trinket factory, and hope that someone as pious buys whatever I stamp out?

2 06 2009
AG

Again, DM, you clearly don’t want to address what Arturo wrote about sacred images, and instead focus on how you feel personally attacked. And heck, if you’re going to throw around snide comments about how he can never know as much about art as you do, he can certainly throw that right back at you and say you can never know as much about Catholicism as he does (both are claims that cannot at this moment by substantiated). And again, you throw out his personal experiences as if to score points for yourself, when you have not the slightest clue about that situation. Maybe you should stop assuming so much about what others know (it’s easy enough from your blog to note that you haven’t had rigorous theological or liturgical training), and what you know about others’ situations (and yes, three weeks is a joke compared to two years – at least he gave an honest go of it).

If you feel that Arturo labels anyone he disagrees with as bourgeois, or a schoolboy romantic, or ignorant, than one wonders why you would interact with him. Reading his responses to others on his blog would prove you wrong, but whatever, as you seem to not pay much attention to what he actually writes anyway, except when you perceive it as a personal attack on you.

I know Arturo has no problems with Gothic art, or mediaevalism, or a number of other topics; however, he does have a problem when people use these as ideological crutches in the modern world. Perhaps you could have asked him why he thinks that, rather than launch into your own “I am so much smarter than you” tirade to start off.

2 06 2009
DM

Well, AG, y’don’t know me either, and if you did, you would know that I’ve given most of my life to understand something about art, and to make it – which ought to earn me the right not to be snidely accused of “schoolboy romanticism” in my conclusions without getting to challenge the qualification of my accusor to make such a judgment.

I have plenty of life experience that Arturo does not – but I have invoked nothing more than my knowledge directly related to the matter at hand, as an artist and student of art. It was Arturo who decided to go personal and attack my faith on the basis of my adult baptism (with no knowledge of my biography either. Heck, I went to the monastery for discernment once myself – is it my fault I figured where I belonged in three weeks rather than three years?).

It’s a cheap shot if ever there was one, but I’ve gotten used to Arturo labelling anyone he disagrees with as a bourgeois or a schoolboy romantic or ignorant or whatever. Frankly, if he wants to feel superior, I’m content to ignore him henceforth, but neither being a seminarian once nor being a monk once nor growing up wherever he grew up means that his snide dismissals of mediaevalism are well informed.

2 06 2009
AG

DM, I honestly don’t know how you reached this sentence, “the only way someone could think what DM thinks about mediaeval art if he’s stoopid” from what Arturo wrote. I suspect you are fundamentally missing the crux of what Arturo wrote in his post:

“Images do not become sacred because of some rite of the institutional church or because they follow strict rules of Christian aesthetics.”…”The problem with religious art in the modern context lies not in the loss of some ancient aesthetic code as defined as the Nicene Creed or the Catechism of the Council of Trent. It lies in the loss of the sense of the sacred, full stop.”

To me, Arturo is arguing that what makes an image sacred is the power attributed to it – and it’s certainly not just 19th century Mexican Catholics who have done this – which cannot be summarized in any codification of aesthetics. People throughout history have thought some ridiculous (by my aesthetics) devotional images to be quite powerful, whether or not they met certain rules of aesthetics. I have yet to see you argue against those statements, so I really don’t understand what your beef is here, other than your belief that Arturo is somehow referring to you specifically in his original post.

As for Glass, chacun a son gout. Whether you like him or not is a matter of taste. Now to say that Glass’s compositions are not music is something altogether different, and would deserve to get called stupid.

As for Arturo arguing from nothing more than his likes and dislikes, I think his religious background – and yes, the greater deal of experience with Catholicism that he has compared to yourself, including more theological and liturgical training – speaks for itself. Attempting to live the religious life is no small feat, and shouldn’t be sneered at by those who haven’t attempted to do so. This is all the more true for those who have no personal knowledge of why Arturo felt he had to leave certain situations or explore the veins of Christianity outside of Roman Catholicism, as I am quite certain you do not. You seem to want to dismiss his experiences as flakiness (comparing discerning religious vocations to womanizing – really?) whereas I don’t think you’ll find many flaky people who will give up their possessions and move far away from their families in order to become a priest or monk.

One of the main themes of Arturo’s blogs has always been to not fall into ideological traps because he’s swilled the Kool-Aid – on Marxism, traditionalist Catholicism, Eastern Christianity (as practiced by Westerners) – and found that they come up short on many levels, as we cannot pretend to live in any world other than the one we live in. (This ties into Leah’s comment that we cannot pretend that any number of devotional images aren’t, quite literally, at my fingertips this moment.) If Arturo has any “wisdom,” it’s rather that he’s gone the whole hog in both study and life sacrifice over some of these issues, and so just may sometimes write things that others find insightful.

Finally, all these digs about what Arturo could never possibly know compared to yourself and your friends about sacred art or modern music, considering that YOU do not know HIM personally, are completely childish. Grow up.

2 06 2009
DM

Arturo:

My actual argument regarding mediaeval art has been developed, refined, and posted for public approval over the past four years, drawing upon hundreds of sources and tens of thousands of hours of study on art and experience making it. You know where.

I really can’t understand how you can expect me not to be offended when you write, more or less, that the only way someone could think what DM thinks about mediaeval art if he’s stoopid. Well, I’m not stupid. I do know much more about sacred art than you, and the fact that you were a failed monk and a failed seminarian doesn’t do a thing to change that. Wandering around vocations and denominations and theisms in your youth doesn’t prove you a wise Cathollic any more than being a womanizer in his youth proves a man a wise husband. And if you want to attack the fact that I was baptized as an adult instead of as an infant, I’ll say that I have never, from at least the age of reason, believed in or wanted to belong to any other religion than Roman Catholicism. You can’t say that now, can you – as recently as, what, February 2007?

I remember the last time we got in this pissing fight, it was when you said, more or less, that the only way someone could think that Philip Glass writes disgusting music is if he’s stoopid. Well, that’s an insult to a good number of friends of mine, including my wife, who are all professional musicians and who have sung more modern music than you have ever heard. You’re the first one to hurl accusations of ignorance – it’s the premise of much of what you write – so don’t act all shocked when your own credentials are questioned.

As far as I can tell, you are arguing from nothing except a knowledge of your own likes and dislikes, and a hasty conclusion that if things worked that way in 19th century rural Mexican fold Catholcism, they must have always worked that way.

2 06 2009
Leah

It’s worth noting that the way in which images are used today have no relation to the way they were used in the 12th century. During the Middle Ages, the only people who would have been going to a cathedral were those who lived in the general vicinity, and even then there might have been restrictions (someone with more knowledge in this area will have to comment). Pilgrims would show up from time to time, but given how perilous travel was, it would have been nothing like the hordes of tourist that descend upon Chartes and Notre Dame. As there was no mass production, the only way for a person to see an icon like the Theotokos of Vladimir would have been to visit the site where it was on display.

In comparison, people in the 21st century suffer from an image glut, whether from television, the Internet, movies, video games, or the print media. If I want a copy of the afore mentioned Theotokos of Vladimir, all I have to do is put a search into Google images and print out a copy. If I want a replica of Our Lady of Aparecida, I can easily get one from an online vendor. Much like how few Catholics knew anything about the pope before the 19th century, the notion of being able to fill one’s personal home with religious artwork is also very recent.

2 06 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Our arguments often degenerate in some sort of intellectual pissing contest where you want to say that I know NOTHING about art or sacred art, even though I can count the number of years you have been Catholic on one hand, and your opinions seem to rise and fall on the opinions of one author, Emile Male (who I have read by the way). While you were still thinking of converting to Catholicism, I was already a monk, and had a couple of years of seminary under my belt, and had been studying Catholicism since I was twelve, if not earlier. So ad hominem attacks about my ignorance on these subjects do not have a very good foundation. Once you can get passed trying to browbeat me with your credentials and form an actual argument, I might listen.

I will say, and will keep saying, that the Holy Infant of Atocha, who my mother brought me to as a child, is no way inferior to the statues of Chartres or the Byzantine revival icons seen in contemporary Orthodox churches. If you want to keep hurling accusations about my “supposed ignorance”, be my guest. Just don’t fault me for thinking that they are ill-founded.

2 06 2009
DM

1) The whole either/or//both/and dichotomy is to me little more than a cheap debaters’ trick… something people invoke when they want to win one sort of argument and ignore when they want to win a different sort of argument. In popular use, it’s close to meaningless.

2) To argue that the High Gothic was a golden age of sacred art is not schoolboy romanticism. It is the opinion of many people (including, among the least of them, myself) who know more about sacred art than you will ever know, either from scholarly study, artistic industry or human experience. When you show some evidence of knowing more about mediaeval art than one can read in the World Book article on the subject, then you can cast such aspersions. Until then, you’re just using the old I’m more of a relativist than you, therefore I’m wiserargument, which isn’t so much schoolboy as it is smarmy college undergraduate. Really, Arturo, since you’re so quick to hurl accusations of ill-informedness, I’d like to know exactly what you know about sacred art and how you know it.

And of coursemediaeval art was not a gnostic code, but it was most definitely a code – one well understood by the faithful, even more clearly than spoken language. To refuse to see this is analogous to saying that liturgical language is gibberish just because you happen to be ignorant of its syntax. It’s an easy way to miss the content altogether.

2 06 2009
Leah

“For people to then rail on about how “incorrect” a Spanish Virgen de los Dolores or a Russian Virgin of Compunction is for me would almost be blasphemous if it weren’t so ill-informed and sophomoric.”

I’m assuming these individuals would be horrified by the poster I picked up at the Shrine of the Black Madonna bookstore that reworks the Christ Pantocrator icon to portray Jesus as a black man with an afro.

2 06 2009
Leah

I think that there’s a very thin line between tasteful and tasteless when it comes to sacred art. A lot of the famous paintings and sculptures found in Catholic bookstores look pretty tacky, especially when reproduced on mouse pads, posters, coffee mugs, and the like. Even Byzantine iconography ends up looking pretty cheap when you’re looking at a reproduction on a computer screen.

2 06 2009
Arturo Vasquez

As usual, I will be a parrot of myself and say that it is a both AND question, not an either or one. In a real sense, there were rules at some points of Christian history that certain people codified, but to think that these rules followed laws of motion similar to systematic theology would be grasping at straws. Indeed, it is reading an agenda into history that simply wasn’t there. After all, the High Gothic period lasted at most a few centuries, and to think of it as some sort of “golden age” is school boy romanticism, and akin to those who say that they know what the primitive Roman liturgy was like because they have dug up a few scraps of Hippolytus.

For people to then rail on about how “incorrect” a Spanish Virgen de los Dolores or a Russian Virgin of Compunction is for me would almost be blasphemous if it weren’t so ill-informed and sophomoric. Such talk is just as mechanistic as the theories that it seeks to critique: the sacred comes from “doing things correctly”, as if the Holy Ghost were some law of magnetism that one just manipulates with a few wires. That is not how sacred images are treated traditionally: they were not codes created to imbue gnostic secrets to the privileged few. If one has that theory of sacred art, there are going to be a lot of lacunae that it would be very hard to explain away.

2 06 2009
random Orthodox chick

“…or that we must look to the Eastern Orthodox for a real “incarnational” approach to iconography.”

Haha, joke’s on them. The OCO (Orthodox Church Offline) has iconography with those darn “western influences” (gasp!).

1 06 2009
DM

Arturo:

You have a lot of fascinating insights into popular devotion, but I think that you’re far too eager to project its attitudes back over the entirety of Christian history. You can explain the spontaneous manner in which a certain image arose in 19th century Mexico or Italy or wherever, but it is a huge leap across the centuries to the conclusion that the Black Madonna of Montserrat must have arisen likewise.

If you want to claim that the traditions of Byzantine art in the East or Gothic art in the West were spontaneously formed in the popular consciousness, without strict guidance from the clergy and the theologians and without concern for an ancient and inherited symbolism – then there is nothing to say in response except no, no they really were not. And if you knew more about art history, you would understand that.

That being said, your argument that Christians must be a homini religiosi to appreciate sacred art at all – and that most Christians today are not, no matter their denomination or ideology – is true.

1 06 2009
Lucian

1 06 2009
MCH

This is so true. Too much b—hing about style and form, and not enough discussions as to why a black image of Christ is ‘more powerful’ than a normal one. All this NLM-style codification and obsession is sure to kill whatever spontaneity is left in Christian piety and devotion.

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