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  What is Sacred Art ? Back to the List of Slideshows

slide 5 of 10

While Burckhardt delves into Christian sacred architecture as deeply as he does Hindu, we can learn much about sacred art, symbolism, and cosmological realities from his discussion of icons within the Christian Tradition. The following is taken from Chapter 2 of Sacred Art in East and West.

"The doctrinal foundation of the icon determines not only its general orientation, its subject and its iconography, but also its formal language, its style. This style is the direct result of the function of the symbol: the picture must not seek to re place the object depicted, which surpasses it eminently; accord ing to the words of Dionysius the Areopagite it must ‘respect the distance that separates the intelligible from the sensible.’ For the same reason it must be truthful on its own plane, that is to say it must not create optical illusions, such as arise from a perspective in depth or a modeling that suggests a body projecting a shadow. In an icon the only perspective is the logical; sometimes the optical perspective is deliberately reversed; modeling by superimposed ‘lights,’ inherited from Hellenism, is reduced until it no longer disturbs the flat surface of the picture; often it is translucid, as if the persons represented were penetrated by a mysterious light. There is no determinate illumination in the composition of an icon; instead the gold background is called ‘light,’ for it corresponds to the celestial Light of a world transfigured. The folds of clothing, the arrangement of which is also derived from Greek antiquity, become the expression, not of physical movement, but of a spiritual rhythm: it is not the wind that swells the fabrics, it is the spirit that animates them. The lines no longer serve only to mark the contours of bodies, they acquire a direct significance, a graphic quality both limpid and supra-rational."

Burckhardt makes it very clear in this chapter that naturalism is antithetical to traditional sacred art, thus the "schematic" composition that is quite intentional, and is even necessary to suggest the transcendence of the realities being depicted in traditional icons. This, combined with fundamental symbols and careful use of color and form, creates a powerful impression upon believers:

"…the schematic arrangement of the icon always affirms the metaphysical and universal background of the religious subject and this incidentally proves the non-human origin of the models. Thus, for example, in most icons of the Virgin and Child the outlines of the Mother as it were envelop those of the Child; the mantel of the Virgin is often dark blue, like the measureless depth of the sky or like deep water, while the clothing of the Divine Child is royal red. All these details have a profound significance."

The Holy Virgin of Vladimir

Burckhardt notes that it is typical of traditional representations of the Virgin with Christ-child that the "representation of the Child, whose nature is mysteriously divine, is in a sense justified by that of His Mother, who clothed Him with Her flesh. A polarity then becomes apparent between the two figures, full of natural attractiveness, but of inexhaustible significance: the nature of the Child is considered in relation to the nature of His Mother and as it were through Her nature; conversely, the presence of the Divine Child, with His attributes of royalty and wisdom—or of His future Passion— confers an impersonal and profound aspect on maternity: the Virgin is the model of the soul in its state of primordial purity and the Child is like the germ of the Divine Light in the heart."

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