Iconography, statues, and the concept of 'space'. A response to David Clayton

Facade of St Denys, Paris (I thnk!)


David Clayton, at the New Liturgical Movement website, poses an interesting question:

"But the existence of a strong tradition of statues raises this question in my mind: if the statue which by its nature occupies three-dimensional space is permitted, does this mean that there ought to be greater freedom in 2-D images that create the illusion of space? Has anyone thought about this at all I wonder? Perhaps one could, for example, make the distinction between real 3-D space and illusional space critical in permitting statues?"  http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/index.html#1540278105095951822 



Aidan Hart in the Orthodox Arts Journal posts an excellent article which takes an in-depth look at the same subject, and while he doesn't argue for statues in Orthodox churches, he "want(s) rather to open a discussion about how the existing statuary tradition within Catholic and some Anglican churches might be made more iconographic." http://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/can-statuary-act-as-icon


Therefore, with this challenge from a Catholic and Orthodox both involved in Liturgical Art, I thought I would add my two pennyworth to the discussion.

1. The purpose of representing Christ in liturgical art is to present the Truth, and in such a way that it inspires awe and wonder to the point of prayer. All other representations, such as the Mother of God and the saints, are a reflection of this, for the sacredness of all the righteous and holy persons is because they are 'in Christ', who has restored in us the image and likeness of God in our humanity through a perfect union between the human an the Divine. 

Statues are often made in ways that are highly realistic, but not always and not of necessity. Statuary can be abstract, conceptional and not just hyper-realistic, though this is not commonly so in the Ancient world. If it was intrinsically hyper-realistic, then statuary would be totally inappropriate in a  liturgical setting.

2.Space in the icon is ambiguous, with space being very flexible and even contradictory. Yes the gilded ground gives a sense of eternity, while at the same time flattened and devoid of temporal space, but the use of mountains in the icons of the transfiguration, for example, gives a sense of a mountain space, of necessity tending to the 3-dimensional, however abstract, and likewise the presence of buildings which, while distorted and limited in terms of 3-D perspective, nevertheless present a definite depth in which actions take place, for example the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple. Its not natural space, but it is multi-dimensional space.

3. Aidan Hart argues that statues when placed in a suitable niche so that they can't be walked around avoids the dangers of a naturalistic space, which is alien and counter-sensitive to the icon. However, I would question this because the statue doesn't inhabit a three dimensional space as an object any more or less than an icon panel, which looms up within the massive, very real, context of the iconostasis through which people come and go, or the stands in the narthex or nave upon which icons are placed and around which liturgical actions occur. Nor should we forget the processional icons, with images in front and behind. Here icons, as objects, are inhabiting three dimensional spaces, no more and no less, than the statue as an object. The question seems to be how they inhabit three dimensional space.

I have long thought that Christian art takes on three basic forms: liturgical, devotional and didactic/symbolic. In a Catholic liturgical context statues work in these three different ways, but I think they are often confused, and thinking about how they are working is often vague and ill thought through. Understanding them according to these three different modes helps us, I would argue, to make sense of what sort of statuary is and its potential within a renewed liturgical context.

In response to Christ's command to his apostles to 'do this is memory of me', liturgical art enhances the Liturgy, the public prayer of the Christian community.seeks to make the Divine Realities concerned with the Liturgy present through visual forms. In the East this is primarily through icons painted on the entire surface of the interior, but there are other examples of how this is done, for example the great carved entrances to the magnificent cathedrals of medieval Europe such as at Chartres, which can be clearly 'read' in the same way. They compliment the liturgy by breaking open the communal, public space in which the liturgy takes place temporally to the greater, spiritual realities which are taking place beyond the limits of time and space in the same vortex.

Devotional art, on other hand, seeks to reach the senses and emotions of the individual, to create a personal channel of encounter with God in private prayer, the prayer which Jesus commanded us to do in our private room or cell. These can be personal pieces suitable for a home or a place set aside for quiet and reflection. Good examples of this would be the Christmas Crib or the Stations of the Cross, but many people use panel icons in the same way.

Conceptional art seeks to make people think, to make a statement through symbols. Much modern religious art is at this level,  some of it even blasphemous, as it seeks to confront ideas through the juxtaposition of cherished symbols from the Christian Tradition such as the Crucifix. However, symbolic, didactic art has had a place in Christian art from the earliest times, for example in the catacombs in Rome. In the east this aspect was somewhat marginalised after the triumph of iconography after the iconoclastic controversy, for example the concilliar prohibition of the use of the Agnus Dei. For various reasons the western experience of iconographical development never when through the purifying fire of the iconoclastic controversy, which meant that Christian art in the west developed in a somewhat less controlled way and symbols such as the Agnus Dei continued to be freely used. 

Sadly, the Triumph of Orthodoxy took place at the same time as the mutual respect and love between East and West was being eroded and that culminated, within a century and a half, in another great convulsion in the Christian Church, in the Great Schism. East and West thus parted company already living Christian art in different ways and with different emphasis. In the east iconography came to dominate the entire world of Christian art and to be developed into a theologically sophisticated, schematic whole, while in the West a much more fluid development took place.

One good example of the latter is the development of stained glass. Developments in engineering enabled the transformation of wall space by the construction of vast expanses of glass. This reduced the area available for wall painting while providing a new and monumental opportunity to re-visit iconography and its relationship to light. Many Orthodox have expressed surprise that Orthodox churches have never embraced this treasure of liturgical art which came to dominate in the west, and that is surely because the distance between wall paintings which seek to capture the inner light of the saint and paintings in glass filled with dazzling sunlight is not such a large step to take. At the same time, the control of liturgical art in the east and the development of panel  and wall iconography has been so typical of its distinctive culture, that stained glass, even when in accord with the Orthodox canons, just doesn't culturally evoke the faith as lived in that particular culture through the ages. While totally valid and immediately recognisable as authentically iconographic, the particularities of Orthodox culture render its use confusing and disturbing.

This latter point is important I think when re-evaluating liturgical statuary. It has been generally accepted that it had a limited use during the early centuries even in the east. However, its place in the west has been much more developed, so that, like stained glass, statuary has become a cultural element particular to the west, a response to the opportunities which the time and place afforded and which over time has become standardised.

In the west, liturgical statuary was common like liturgical art, until the latter part of the Middle Ages, before the move towards emotion and devotion came to dominate. I am no expert, but I would date this shift to about the time of St Francis of Assisi, and in particular to his innovation within the liturgical space of the Christmas Crib. Here he created a copy of temporal space, one in which a person could, through their imagination, take themselves back into history and place themselves back in certain events. This was not about the eternal breaking through into the temporal and transforming it so much as evoking the particularities of the past in a way that would touch the human heart through its emotions. Jesus the poor Christ, the little baby, sweet and innocent, poor and laying in the straw of the stable - the statuary was to be as realistic as possible in order to most directly stir up the emotions and imagination of the believer, to move the heart to devotion as though the person was there at the moment those events took place. This was something intensely personal rather than public, something of the emotions and imagination taking you back to moments that had passed, rather than a deepening of the public encounter with God in the present moment. 

The potency of this revolution was immediate and in time swept away the sense of the liturgical with its sophistication, perhaps because it is something too demanding and austere. But this is not something restricted to the west. For example, we need only think of the dominance of sentimental images of the Virgin in Russian iconography from the 17th century onwards. These images were not simply an imposition by reforming czars, but were treasured by the faithful, bishops and peasants alike, and adorned the iconostasis and the prayer corner across the whole Orthodox world. There is something about the human emotions, cautionary as we need be about them, that is still essential to the humanity God has entrusted to us, and we respond to him out of this too and the popularity of devotional imagery is testament to this. The tragedy is when the devotional and the liturgical are confused, and the one supplants the other. 

What then of statues? Statuary having dropped out of sight within the eastern churches from early in the development of the tradition, and in the west fallen prey to the ubiquity of devotionalism, lost its liturgical purity and an understanding as to how it could work outside of that context. Browse any catalogue of religious artefacts and the quality and nature of Christian statuary is pure sentiment and devotion. However, is this irredeemably so, or can we renew statuary as liturgical art? Understanding how it has become lost to devotionalism enables us to ask the question how we bring it back to a liturgical context? 

For this I think we look to the task of all liturgical art: to bring GLORY to God upon the earth. To inspire. To transcend space. To confront with Truth, the Truth in Christ. Statuary which represents simply the human Jesus has failed as liturgical art, because it looses the truth that Jesus is truly God as well as fully Man. Statuary which not only inhabits 3 dimensional space as an object but without transforming the space in which it stands fails as liturgical art because it doesn't transcend the temporal space. But there is nothing inherent in statuary which says it can't do this, because all objects inhabit three dimensional space, whether square boards with paintings on, or crosses or painted banners carried on poles, or images painted on the curved inner space of a dome. They all inhabit 3 dimensional space. The issue is, what does the art form that they take do to that space? Does it blow it apart through making Present the Truth in that moment or not? 

So, to answer David's question, if a statue - or a painting - makes a space 'illusional', then it fails as liturgical art, because the Liturgy is about truth, not deception. Liturgical art can never authentically play with illusions without being false to itself. Devotional art can and I would suggest should do that, as it re-creates a moment past so that a person can 'put themselves into it', imagining themselves to be there. But this is essentially a very personal and intimate journey, not a public one. However, if a statue transforms the space by making visual the realities that are taking place there, then it works like any icon. 

One problem, or crisis, in the use of a statue, would be what happens to the face when you find yourself behind it? In the icon, you always show the face clearly and never in profile (unless for an evil character). Obviously, with a statue you have a behind and a before. Here Aidan Hart's preference for the niche would make sense as a way of emphasising the importance of encountering the face of Christ. However, perhaps a statue is working in a different way than an icon? 

Anyway, enough of this for now... I have run out of time!




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