Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Incarnation and Image

The Reverend G. G. Dunbar, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Savannah, Georgia


In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he records the first meeting of St. Augustine of Canterbury and his company with the pagan English king of Kent and his court about the year 597 A.D. King Aethelbert “took care that they should not meet in any building, for he held the traditional superstition that, if they practised any magic art, they might deceive him and get the better of him as soon as he entered. But they came endowed with divine not devilish power and bearing as their standard a silver cross and the image of our Lord and Savior painted on a panel,” chanting litanies and uttering prayers “to the Lord for their own eternal salvation and the salvation of those for whom and to whom they had come.” Though Bede is writing about two hundred years later, there is no reason to doubt his description. By the 6th century, sacred images had become an accepted and expected element in Christian worship.

In the English church, of course, the long rich tradition of the sacred image that developed there came to an abrupt end in the great iconoclasm of the mid-16th century Protestant Reformation, with scars visible to this day. “Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, and visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and show mercy unto thousands in them that love me and keep my commandments.” There are of course, exceptions—a remarkable amount of stained glass, paintings that have been rediscovered under whitewash, the occasional sculpture too remote to reach. But it was in the Protestant soul that the tradition of the sacred image was renounced.

Though Protestant and post-Protestant westerners often find the sacred art of the pre-Reformation world deeply compelling, their relation to it is primarily aesthetic, antiquarian, and romantic. The Anglo-Catholic surrounded by sacred images is no exception to this rule, but rather its supreme example. For what was lost in the Reformation is what was most primary to the sacred image before the Reformation—not the image as means of instruction in sacred doctrine, Gregory the Great’s rationale of “the Bible for the illiterate”; but rather, the sense of divine presence and activity in and through the sacred image, to which countless stories of speaking and miracle-working images attest.

In distinguishing iconolatry (the veneration of true images of the true Lord and his saints) from idolatry the worship of false gods by means of images), the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 787 determined that “the honor accorded to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever venerates the image venerates in it the reality of what is there represented”: yet this distinction, valid as it may be, actually serves to justify external acts of honor done to the Christian image. If we are to do justice to the Christian sacred image, we cannot simply treat it as an aesthetic object, of antiquarian interest, or romantic associations. Profitable as it may be to study these works of art in the neutral setting and good lighting of the modern art museum, they were made to be objects of worship, and we cannot forget that. Maybe art museums should install a few prayer desks, altars, candlesticks, and send through their galleries monastic choirs chanting litanies amid clouds of incense! If we are to appreciate these works of art for what they are, we must see them in terms of their liturgical and quasi-sacramental function, as making visibly present to us invisible realities that require of the viewer's acts of adoration or veneration.

For Protestants (and I include Anglo-Catholics in this term) this is difficult not just intellectually, but even more so emotionally. The renunciation of images has entered deeply into our souls. These images speak to our deepest convictions, but from a distance which we do not easily bridge.


As is well-known, in defending the veneration of images, the Byzantine east depended on the doctrine of the Incarnation articulated in the great Ecumenical Councils of the 4th and 5th centuries. John of Damascus argued that the Mosaic prohibition on images was necessary in the time before the Incarnation, before the “true image” of God had been revealed. But now that God had become visible in the flesh, it was legitimate and fitting to craft images as affirmation that in Christ God had become Man. Under the impetus of the Chalcedonian doctrine of the Incarnation, the sketchy symbols and typologies of catacomb art moves into representations of Christ and his saints in majesty, according to their human bodily appearance.

What is perhaps less well-known is the continuing impact of the doctrine of the Incarnation on the development of sacred art after the 8th century. For after the Iconodule triumph in the Second Nicene Council in 787, a new trajectory slowly emerged both in the East and the West. In the east, its development ceased in the 15th century, with the collapse of Byzantium before Islam and the defensive retreat from innovation of any kind. In the West its development continued for centuries in familiar chapters of art history—Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-classical, Romantic, and so forth. In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, an autonomous secular Christian art (history, portraiture, landscapes, still-lifes)develops out of the altarpiece, in which these first appeared. In Roman Catholic countries it co-exists with a continuing tradition of sacred art, but in the Reformation countries of northern and western Europe, after the repudiation of the sacred image, it becomes the entire content of Christian art.

It is in Italian art from about 1100 onwards that one may most easily trace the development from Byzantine (and Romanesque) starting points. Though the Italo-Byzantine art of the 13th c. is often treated (following Vasari) as mere prelude to the achievements of Giotto and his heirs down to Masaccio and Michelangelo, in fact it is those often forgotten Italo-Byzantine painters who are the first greatness of the Italian tradition. By comparison with later painters they may well look stylized, schematic, and flat, but they are nonetheless sophisticated and powerful works of art, that hint at glories yet to come. The Cimabue Maesta in Florence, the Coppa da Marcovaldo Crucifix in San Gimignano, the recently uncovered frescoes in the crypt of the Duomo in Siena, which some surmise may be early works of Duccio himself, these are masterpieces that are overlooked only because of what did follow them.

What is it that animates these images? It is a fuller sense of Christ’s humanity, and in particular, of his suffering humanity, that first emerged in the Christian east in the aftermath of the Muslim conquest and the iconoclastic controversies of the 7th–9th centuries. This enlarged sense of Christ’s humanity took deep hold in the Latin west in the 13th century. Earlier Christian art had emphasized the divine majesty of Christ, and so Christ typically appears as the Pantocrator, the almighty and impassive Ruler of all things. Even in images of the crucifixion, he appears vested in the long tunic known as the colobium, and his eyes are open, for he lives and reigns even from the tree. Images of the suffering or dead Christ only appear (in the Christian East) very late in the first millennium; and it is in the 13th century in the west that the Franciscans promoted the use of great crucifixes that depict the suffering or dead Christ, his eyes closed, his face no longer impassive or vacant, but a mask of pain and grief. Formally, the severe and anti-naturalistic schematicism of earlier Byzantine and Romanesque art is softened: incipient chiaroscuro (the effect of contrasted light and shadow created by light falling on something.) gives a hint of volume and weight to the face and hands, and there is a gracefulness of line that is also new.

One of the most striking examples of this Italo-Byzantine sacred art is the Crucifix in San Gimignano attributed to the duecento Florentine painter Coppa da Marcovaldo. By the naturalistic standards of Renaissance art, it may appear primitive, but there is nothing unsophisticated about it all, and its emotional power is undeniable. His eyes are mere stylized slits of grief, his beard is lost in the shadow of his jaw and chin, the sweat-soaked tendrils of his hair spread over his shoulders, his out-stretched arms are painfully elongated, the ribs are visible in the schematically-rendered torso, the severe geometries of his loincloth set off the slack but elegant sway of his pendent body.
At the same time that the suffering and death of Christ in his humanity is explored in art, the image of the Virgin changes. In majesty undiminished, there is nonetheless a new softening note of pathos—of an informal tenderness toward her infant Son, with whom she interacts, in a restrained but real grief for his foreseen sorrows; and of a tender interaction with the worshipper, who seeks her prayers, and whom she refers to Christ. Among the countless examples of this image is one also in San Gimignano that is attributed plausibly to another obscure duecento artist, the Sienese Guido di Graziano. Much of the paint surface is in terrible shape—there is little left of the Virgin’s body and clothing but a white silhouette—yet perhaps the deep spirituality of her face and hands is all the greater by contrast. The tender gravity of her glance engages the worshipper, and her hand directs our attention to her Son, whom she supports with her arm, as he looks and reaches out towards her, his own feet planted firmly on her lower body.

In the standard narrative crafted by Vasari, Italian painting is dominated by the heroic naturalism of Giotto, Masaccio, and Michelangelo. Duecento painters like Coppa da Marcovaldo and Guido di Graziano are not even mentioned by name. Only the slightly later Italo-Byzantines Duccio and Cimabue are mentioned, and then primarily as a foil for Giotto’s prodigious advances in naturalistic representation of human nature, and the natural world. Yet that movement towards representation of the fullness of human nature is already well underway in the almost forgotten Byzantine and Italo-Byzantine artists that precede him, and who have been so long forgotten.

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