Friday, January 12, 2007
St. John Chrysostom with liturgical Scroll: The Holy Monastery of St. Catherine, Mount Sinai; Photography by Bruce M. White, 2005
Why Are Icons Not Quite Realistic?
The answer is partly liturgical: because the artists want them to be really real! The church fathers understood the divine liturgy, what we Catholics call the “mass,” as action in which we mortals join the angels, saints, and martyrs in the work of praising God and offering the divine sacrifice.
What does this mean for art? Since our coworkers in the liturgy (those angels, saints, and martyrs) are not here on earth, they should not look like they are here on earth. Their reality is literally otherworldly. The artist must convey the difference between a being that is “really real” (to borrow a phrase from The Last Battle) rather than simply in the flesh. To achieve this, their icons consciously deviate from the use of perspective and other skills used to make a two dimensional picture look like something we see in our three dimensional world.
The ancient Greeks knew perspective. They had the technology to paint realistic paintings. Some time during the long Byzantine period, they lost the ability to portray with perspective. Why? I do not know. If I had to guess, it was because icons’ dominance crowded out painting that was “realistic” in a purely earthly way.
"Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons From Sinai" at the Getty Museum
The Getty Museum in Los Angeles is showing an exhibit of icons, "Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons From Sinai." The Wall Street Journal’s Tom L. Freudenheim writes about this “inspired and inspiring exhibition.” He tells us it is “a singular event simply because these rare Byzantine works of art have rarely been seen away from their home at St. Catherine's Monastery in Egypt, and never before in such profusion.”
St. Catherine's is an Orthodox monastery built on the mountain where God spoke to Moses and gave him the law. It is the source of the Sinaiticus codex, one of the earliest and best sources for the scripture. This manuscript is now in the Vatican library.
Freudenheim continues, “The Getty's expansive exhibition catalog suggests that there is much we have yet to learn about the early Christian tradition, in which icons -- painted images of sacred subjects -- were primarily used in private worship, before they became part of Byzantine church decoration. Of the 70 awe-inspiring objects in the exhibition, ranging from the sixth to the 16th centuries, 62 are on loan from St. Catherine's, so it's surprising to learn that they were first published only in the 1950s.” Read on...