Saint Thomas Aquinas

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Restoring True Liturgical Art (The Humble Icon)

Restoring True Liturgical Art (The Humble Icon)
Matthew J. Bellisario 2012
The Pantokrator, Cathedral of Monreale, Sicily

    I don’t think that it is a hard case to be made to prove that the Catholic Church is now undergoing the worst persecution of the sacred image since the iconoclastic controversy of the 8th century, which was confined more to the East. Now however, the new iconoclastic movement has become widespread in almost every geographic region of the Church. This iconoclastic movement preceded the Second Vatican Council, it was however not largely carried out until its conclusion along with the restructuring of the Latin Liturgy. Since the implementation of the Novus Ordo Liturgy, along with a progressive modern theology, many sacred images have either been destroyed or removed from many once beautiful churches. Likewise, this new modernist liturgical outlook denied any newly constructed churches to receive the proper sacred imagery. It  was replaced by the horrible highly secularized imagery invented under the auspices of secular humanism. As the secular atheistic philosophies gained a foothold in the Church, despite the cries of 6 successive popes beginning with Pius IX, the understanding of authentic liturgical art also completely fell by the wayside.

    I am not one of those people who believes that all evolution of art since the time of the Byzantines has been a disaster for society, although it may have contributed to a degradation of sacred liturgical art in the Church. I do not think however that Giotto was responsible for the decline of art, any more than Saint Thomas Aquinas was responsible for over intellectualism. Giotto for the most part retains a strong theological backbone to his iconography. When it comes to those artists who followed him however, things begin to change. I think a strong case can be made that the traditional form of iconography most fully represents the theological reality that is to be found within the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Although the later art of the Italian Renaissance is quite beautiful, it can be argued that it begins a movement to focus less on the divine realities which coincide with the life of the Church, and more on material human realities. A strong development began to sweep through the visual art world after the Renaissance which often aimed at depicting a more “realistic” view of the events they depict. To some this seems to be a clear positive development of sacred art. To the trained eye however, this development was not for the improvement of sacred art, but only started a slow trend in moving the focus off of divine things, to secular ideas. Although I find many of the later art of the Renaissance to be beautiful, I do not find these art forms to the best form of liturgical art.

    If we look closely at the sacred icon, we do not see what most would consider to be a “realistic” depiction of Christ or his Saints, if we understand “realism” to be that which is only seen with the human eye. Although the iconic images are unmistakable in the persons or events they intend to represent, they do not seem to keep the eye trained on any one point of the image for the image’s sake. Yes, the image is beautiful, and yes there is much detail in the image, but the eye tends to move its focus beyond the image. The sacred image intends not to leave the viewer stuck on admiring the image for the image’s sake alone. Nor does it intend to leave viewer in awe of the artists talent to make the most “realistic” or “original” depiction of a person or event. It intends to leave the viewer looking beyond the image to the divine reality which it depicts. The icon is a humble, yet strikingly beautiful image. Yet its beauty, as with later art, is not tied to the temporal world. The icon instead points to a beauty that is beyond its own existence, that of the eternal. The Saints are depicted not as they were on earth, but in a deified state in heaven. This goes hand in hand with the theology of the Church, which calls on the faithful to ask for the intercession of the Saints, who now dwell in the divine light of Christ. Our Catholic faith demands a focus on the eternal rather than the temporal.

    The humility of the icon is an important characteristic which separates it from all other art forms. Although they certainly depict real events that occurred here on earth, the events are not weighed down by earthly cares, or confined to time. The event or person depicted is done in a simple style, which leaves the person or event wonderfully suspended in eternity. For example, if we look at the image of Christ, the Pantokrator, often seen in the domes of Eastern and even older Western churches, we do not see Christ as he was seen while he walked the earth. He is seen as the “All Mighty”, or “All Powerful” King of the universe. This is something that is completely opposed to the modernist mind, which seeks to debase Christ the King, the Supreme Ruler of all. Christ rules from the heavens, blessing mankind with His right hand while proclaiming the gospels from His left. He is often depicted in a blue outer garment and red inner garment, the blue proclaiming His divine nature and the red His human nature of martyrdom. Usually He is surrounded by many Saints in a gold hue of heavenly splendor, along with a unique style halo to which only He is entitled. Likewise the Theotokos, Panagia, our Blessed Mother is depicted according to divine reality. She has an inner blue garment depicting her heavenly nature covered by a red outer garment signifying her original human nature. There is much more that can be said for the theological construction of an icon. The main point to understand here is that the icon is theological and liturgical in its essence. It is made for meditation and worship.

    I find it demoralizing at times that most Catholics are not familiar at all with iconography. In the past, when I have introduced this sacred art form to Catholics, many have called them “too cartoonish” or “too childlike.” They measure the icon by the standards of the secular mind. They believe that an art form which depicts an image more “realistically” is superior to that which does not. I actually had one person claim that those who painted icons had no talent for art. Yet, I know many iconographers who can also paint an oil painting which would astonish anyone with their ability to depict “realism.” What is not understood by such naysayers is that the iconographer does not intend to depict things as they are in this life. Instead, the iconographer intends to depict a divine, eternal reality; or more importantly, he intends to lead the worshipper to the divine. This is something very foreign to most Catholics in the Church today. Just as it is extremely important to rectify our moral, sacramental and liturgical theology in the Church today, I believe that there needs to be a strong movement in the Church to re-catechize the faithful on the theology of the sacred image. Let us leave secular art for secular establishments, and let us restore true sacred art to sacred spaces.

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