Friday, May 09, 2008

On the nature of the Gospels and Christian Art...

This just popped into my head, and I'm wondering whether there's any value in the insight that Christian art should take its cues from the manner in which Christ is remembered in the Church.

The fullness of Divine Revelation is a concrete individual man - Jesus of Nazareth. He is the concrete universal, true God and true man, disclosing the truth about about God and about man.

Therefore:

Since God's revelation to us literally 'took flesh', Christian art should not, as a rule, tend towards the abstract.

How is Christ's life made known to us?

Through the Scriptures, and in particular the Gospels, which we understand through the lens of tradition.
Despite being historically truthful, the Gospels are not footnoted biographies which meet the standards of modern historiography. Christ did not appear in a time and place which permitted him to be captured on film. Consequently, there are many details concerning 'how things actually happened' which we are not told. We do not even know what Christ looked like, what his voice sounded like, etc, etc...

Therefore, the Gospel accounts of the doings of Christ do not impose historical details on the mind of the believer. Listening to an account of the Last Supper, for example, the details of how the Jews of the 1st Century decorated their rooms and arranged their tables are not imposed on the mind's eye of the believer. Whilst our understanding of the Gospel is certainly deepened by historical research, the true meaning of the Gospel accounts can just as easily be grasped by the ordinary believer who has no idea what the blind man of Jerico might have historically worn. His imagining a beggar of his own time, or some vaguely undefined time in the past does not fundamentally compromise his grasp of the meaning of the miraculous healing.

Consequently, Christian art should not feel bound by hyper-realism or an obsession with historical accuracy.

2 comments:

Michael said...

Good start - especially that last sentence. One of the strangest things to see is hyper-realism in icons - think of the weird profile St. Josemaria Escriva in the altarpiece at Sant'Apollinare; they had a photograph of him they liked and they gave it to someone to turn into a painting. That's not a good idea.

Matthew said...

Oh this is good. I prefer some measure of realism (and think the abstraction of eastern icons not appropriate in a western context) but at the same time I also think too much realism destroys the iconic potency of a religious painting. On the other hand, one should not be so fantastical as to be distracting. The nice thing is such an argument you proposes undercuts both modernism and excessive antiquarianism. The way the medievals handled such things--with an emphasis placed on the postures and symbolic dress of an image's subject matter, and less on the actual historical period, all within a broad range of styles shading from flat Italo-Greek to the hieratic quasi-realism of Flanders--is a good model for grasping what is essential and what is incidental.