Christian Art

In traditional worlds, to be situated in space and time is to be situated in a cosmology and in an eschatology respectively; time has no meaning save in relation to the perfection of the origin and the maintenance of that perfection, and in view of the final breaking up that casts us almost without transition at the feet of God. If as time went on there were sometimes developments which could be taken to have been progressive when isolated from the whole—in the formulation of doctrine for example, or especially in art, which needs time and experience to ripen—this does not imply that tradition can be regarded as having become different or better, but on the contrary that it wants to remain wholly itself, or to “become what it is”; or in other words, that traditional humanity wants to manifest or to exteriorize at a particular level something that it carries within itself and is in danger of losing; and the danger increases as the cycle unfolds, the cycle inevitably ending in decline and Judgment. It is therefore our increasing weakness, and therewith the risk of forgetfulness and betrayal, which more than anything else obliges us to exteriorize and to make explicit things that were at the beginning included in an inward and implicit perfection. Saint Paul had no need either of Thomism or of Cathedrals, for all profundities and all splendors were within himself, and all around him in the sanctity of the primitive community. And this, so far from supporting iconoclasts of all kinds, refutes them completely; more or less late epochs—the Middle Ages for example—are faced with an imperious need for exteriorizations and developments, exactly as the water from a spring, if it is not to be lost on its way, needs a channel made by nature or by the hand of man; and just as the channel does not transform the water and is not meant to do so—for no water is better than spring water—so the exteriorizations and developments of the spiritual patrimony are there, not to change that patrimony, but to transmit it as integrally and as effectively as possible.
      Starting from the idea that the liturgy is the garment of the spiritual order and that in a religious, and hence normal, civilization nothing is wholly independent of the sacred, it will be admitted that the liturgy in the most ample sense of the term embraces all forms related to the arts and crafts insofar as they are referable to the sacred, and that, for this very reason, these forms cannot be just anything. Now, what has to be stressed here is that artistic liturgy—or liturgic art—has been radically false for several centuries, as if there were no longer any relation between the visible and the Invisible; it would be absurd to maintain that this state of affairs has no influence whatever on the spiritual order, as regards the general conditions governing ambience and development. A particular saint may have no need of imaginative and aesthetic symbolism, but the collectivity needs it and the collectivity must be able to produce saints; whether one likes it or not, the great things in this world are bound up with the little things, at least extrinsically, and it would be abnormal to see in the outward expressions of a tradition merely a facade.
Christian art is founded, from a doctrinal point of view, on the mystery of the Son, “Image” of the Father, or the mystery of God “become man” (or image) in order that man (made in the image of God) might “become God.” In this art the central element is painting: tradition says that it goes back to the likeness of Christ miraculously imprinted on a cloth sent to King Abgar, as also to the portrait of the Virgin Mary painted by Saint Luke; another archetype of icons of the Blessed Face is, by its very nature, the Holy Shroud, prototype of the sacred portraits, and then the Crucifix. The Seventh Ecumenical Council declared that “the painting of icons was in no wise an invention of painters, but is on the contrary an established institution and tradition of the Church.”1
      By painting the first icon of the Blessed Virgin, Saint Luke introduced painting into Christianity and created the entire artistic dimension of this religion, which has been maintained in the Eastern Church.
      The majority of moderns who claim to understand art are convinced that Byzantine or Romanesque art is in no way superior to modern art, and that a Byzantine or Romanesque Virgin resembles Mary no more than do her naturalistic images, in fact rather the contrary. The answer is, however, quite simple: the Byzantine Virgin—which traditionally goes back to Saint Luke and the Angels—is infinitely closer to the truth of Mary than a naturalistic image, which of necessity is always that of another woman. Only one of two things is possible: either the artist presents an absolutely correct portrait of the Virgin from a physical point of view, in which case it will be necessary for the artist to have seen the Virgin, a condition that cannot easily be fulfilled—setting aside the fact that all purely naturalistic painting is illegitimate—or else the artist will present a perfectly adequate symbol of the Virgin, but in this case physical resemblance, without being absolutely excluded, is no longer in question. It is this second solution that is realized in icons; what they do not express by means of a physical resemblance they express by the abstract but immediate language of symbolism, a language that is made at once of precision and imponderables. Thus the icon, in addition to the beatific power that is inherent in it by reason of its sacramental character, transmits the holiness or inner reality of the Virgin and hence the universal reality of which the Virgin herself is an expression; in suggesting both a contemplative experience and a metaphysical truth, the icon becomes a support of intellection, whereas a naturalistic image transmits—apart from its obvious and inevitable falsehood—only the fact that Mary was a woman. It is true that in the case of a particular icon it may happen that the proportions and features are those of the living Virgin, but such a likeness, if it really came to pass, would be independent of the symbolism of the image and could only be the result of a special inspiration. Naturalistic art could moreover be legitimate up to a certain point if it were used exclusively to record the features of the saints, since the contemplation of saints (the Hindu darshan)can be a very precious help on the spiritual way, owing to the fact that their outward appearance conveys, as it were, the perfume of their spirituality; but the use in this limited manner of a partial and disciplined naturalism corresponds only to a very remote possibility.
      To come back to the symbolic and spiritual quality of the icon: one’s ability to perceive the spiritual quality of an icon or any other symbol is a question of contemplative intelligence and also of “sacred science.” However, it is certainly false to claim, in justification of naturalism, that the people need an accessible, that is to say, a platitudinous art, for it is not the people who gave birth to the Renaissance; the art of the latter, like all the “fine art” that is derived from it, is, on the contrary, an offense to the piety of the simple person. The artistic ideals of the Renaissance and of all modern art are therefore very far removed from what the people need, and in fact nearly all the miraculous Virgins to which the people flock are Byzantine or Romanesque; and who would presume to argue that the black color of some of them agrees with popular taste or is particularly accessible to it?
      Far from serving only for the more or less superficial instruction and edification of the masses, the icon, as is the case with the Hindu yantra and all other visible symbols, establishes a bridge from the sensible to the spiritual: “By the visible aspect,” states Saint John Damascene, “our thoughts must be drawn up in a spiritual flight and rise to the invisible majesty of God.”
      Besides the icons of Christ and the Virgin, there are also a multitude of other hieratic images, relating the facts of sacred history and the lives of the saints; likewise in Buddhist iconography, after the central images come the numerous representations of secondary personifications; it is this more or less peripheral category which may be called indirect sacred art, even though there may not always be a rigorous line of demarcation between it and direct or central sacred art. The function of this ramification—apart from its didactic significance—is to enable the spirit of the central images to shine through a diverse imagery which rivets the movement of the mind by infusing into it the radiance of the Immutable, and which, in so doing, imposes on the moving soul a tendency towards interiorization; this function is thus entirely analogous to that of hagiography or even to that of stories of chivalry, not forgetting fairy tales whose symbolism, as is well known, belongs to the realm of the spiritual and so to that of the sacred.
In Christianity the sacred emanates from the sacrament, which confers upon the collective sense of the sacred its characteristic quality, notably the taste for solemnity, without forgetting the splendor of the liturgical art, such as the iconostases, the golden retables, and the priestly vestments.
      Byzantine, Romanesque, and primitive Gothic arts are theologies: they proclaim God, or rather “realize” Him on a certain level.
      The pseudo-Christian art inaugurated by the neo-paganism of the Renaissance seeks and realizes only man. The mysteries it should suggest are suffocated in a din of superficiality and inability, inevitable features of individualism; in any case it inflicts immense harm on society, above all by its ignorant hypocrisy. How should it be otherwise, seeing that this art is only disguised paganism and takes no account in its formal language of the contemplative chastity and the immaterial beauty of the spirit of the Gospels? How can one unreservedly call “sacred” an art which, forgetful of the quasi-sacramental character of holy images and forgetful, too, of the traditional rules of the crafts, holds up to the veneration of the faithful carnal and showy copies of nature and even portraits of concubines painted by libertines? In the ancient Church, and in the Eastern Churches even down to our own times, icon painters prepared themselves for their work by fasting, by prayer, and by sacraments; to the inspiration which had fixed the immutable type of the image they added their own humble and pious inspirations; and they scrupulously respected the symbolism—always susceptible of an endless series of precious nuances—of the forms and colors. They drew their creative joy, not from inventing pretentious novelties, but from a loving recreation of the revealed prototypes, and this resulted in a spiritual and artistic perfection such as no individual genius could ever attain.
      In the sixteenth century the Patriarch Nikon ordered the destruction of icons influenced by the Renaissance and threatened with excommunication those who painted or owned such paintings. After him the Patriarch Joachim required—in his last will and testament—that icons should always be painted according to ancient models and not “follow Latin or German models, which are invented according to the personal whim of the artist and corrupt the tradition of the Church.” Many texts of this kind could be cited.2

If painted pictures are a necessary expression of Christian spirituality, sculptured images have only a secondary necessity which is also more or less “local.” A cathedral covered with sculpture is assuredly a profound and powerful expression of Christianity, but one that is essentially determined by a fusion of Teutonic with Latin genius. A Gothic facade aims at embodying a preaching as concretely as possible; it may include esoteric elements—and indeed must do so by reason of its symbolism—but it has not the quasi-sacramental character of an iconostasis. One of the glories of the Western cathedral is its stained glass, which is like an opening towards heaven: the rose-window is like a sparkling symbol of the metaphysical universe, of the cosmic reverberations of the “Self.”

Latin Christianity has never been able to eradicate completely the paganism of antiquity. After having smouldered for centuries beneath the spiritual and artistic marvels of medieval civilization, it broke out and appeared in a heavier and more brutal form. It took its revenge by destroying, on the intellectual level as well as on the artistic3 and other levels, the normal expressions of the Christian genius.
      The Renaissance, an imperialism of bourgeois and bankers, was on the level of forms an intrinsic heresy.
The Renaissance still retained certain qualities of intelligence and grandeur, whereas the Baroque style could hardly express anything but the spiritual penury and the hollow and miserable turgidity of its period.
      Late Gothic statuary has all the characteristics of a dense and unintelligent bourgeois art; the Renaissance was in a strong position in setting against it the noble and intelligent art of a Donatello or a Cellini. But none the less, taken as a whole, the misdeeds of Gothic art are a small matter beside those of the profane, passionate, and pompous art of the Renaissance.
      No doubt bad taste and incapacity are to be met with everywhere, but tradition neutralizes them and reduces them to a minimum that is always tolerable.
The first thing that strikes one in a traditional masterpiece is its intelligence: an intelligence which surprises both by its complexity and by its power of synthesis, an intelligence which envelops, penetrates, and uplifts.4
      Humanly speaking some artists of the Renaissance are great, but with a greatness which becomes small in the face of the greatness of the sacred. In sacred art genius is as it were hidden; what is dominant is an impersonal, vast, and mysterious intelligence. A sacred work of art has a fragrance of infinity, an imprint of the absolute. In it individual talent is disciplined; it is intermingled with the creative function of the tradition as a whole; this cannot be replaced, far less can it be surpassed, by human resources.


1 The icon painters were monks who, before setting to work, prepared themselves by fasting, prayer, confession, and communion; it even happened that the colors were mixed with holy water and the dust from relics, as would not have been possible had the icon not possessed a truly sacramental character.
2 In India, tradition speaks of the painter Chitrakara who was cursed by a brahmin for having broken the rules in the composition of a painting for which he had received a commission.
3 We are here referring to the full development of the Renaissance style, as found in Michelangelo, Titian, or Correggio, not to the painting of the Quattrocento, which is often virginal and tender and is in any case still Christian [see ills. 115 and 123].
4 When standing before a cathedral one truly feels situated at the center of the world; standing before a church of the Renaissance, Baroque, or Rococo period, one merely feels oneself to be in Europe.
        English architecture was less devastated by the Renaissance and by the Baroque than that of most continental countries. It may be that, by one of those paradoxes of which history is prodigal, Anglicanism preserved (against Rome), a certain medieval heritage in matters of art, and this would seem to have been the less unlikely since the English are less creative than the Italians, Germans, or French. Something analogous could no doubt be said about the popular architecture of Spain and particularly of Andalusia where Arab influence seems to have played the part of a preserver.