Sunday, February 13, 2011

Iconic Developments

The history of the icon is the history of a unified church, of both the Catholic and Orthodox artistic traditions. The Orthodox however, cannot make claims to the Catholic tradition that developed after the Great Schism. By remaining rooted in one region and era, the icon has a rather limited artistic expression. Continually repeating canonic formulas carries with itself a certain amount of monotony. It is because of this shortcoming, the icon is easily mass produced without loss in its internal qualities.

Despite the Orthodox insistence that the icon arose independent of any influences,  it has its origins in Roman sculpture and Egyptian funerary painting combined with theological developments and local veneration traditions. The enormous amount of writing that has arisen around the icon tends to create a smokescreen insisting the viewer not take the image on face value but must bring with him a whole history of theology and encyclopedic rationalizations. The existence of such texts certainly does not guarantee validity. In order to qualify the icon we must put aside these rationalizations and place it aside western paintings to be appreciated and evaluated for what they are. The canonical models evident in the icon, elongated bodies, large eyes, small mouths, etc. are meant to represent spirituality and in the best models, they do. Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Raphael, and many others employ similar artistic distortions to express the same concept. Certainly, both Monreale and the Sistine Chapel speak of a similar beauty. Icons are not great because of what is written about them. They are great when they are beautiful. Theological validity does not carry with it aesthetical validity.
From the 16th to 20th Centuries, while the West developed its own artistic tradition, the icon lost its appeal. Beginning in the seventeenth century, as the icon borrowed from Latin prototypes, it began to whither as a genre. In the 19th Century Russian academic artists use the artistic developments and forms of the Renaissance within the traditional arrangements of the iconic cycle. The beautiful integration that resulted is visible in two churches:

The Church of the Spilled Blood, 1883-1907 in St. Petersburg: 

And the Cathedral of St Vladimir, 1862-1882 in Kyiv, Ukraine 

The Russian artist Victor Vasnetsov worked on both churches but had a much greater roll in St. Vladimir's. Below are some of his murals, which show the combination of the Eastern and Western sacred art traditions, that the art critic Vladimir Stasov labelled "a sacrilegious play with religious feelings of the Russian people."

Alain Besancon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm.
TimothyVerdon, Il Catechismo della Carne.

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