Saturday, February 11, 2017

Art that is written. . .

Apparently some among the Orthodox are in a war of words over what exactly iconography means.  The words, in Greek eikonographia and in Slavonic ikonopisanie, speak in broader terms than simply writing (any manner of depicting, really) but there is merit to the idea of icon writing.  Icons are not simply art.  Indeed, the religious art of the West is not merely art.  This is not the kind of art that appeals to taste or preference but to the thing itself being depicted.  This is art that is words that do not have alphabet but form and shape.  It is a good thing to remember.  This art is not for appreciation but to speak the Word to us, to address us with the Word spoken not with voice or pen but with paint and brush.

Like it or not, the art in service to the Church has a nobler purpose than to appeal to taste or preference.  It's purpose is much more than an appeal to feelings or sentiment.  It exists to represent in form what the Word says.  The artist may use all of his or her creative skills in the process but in the end it is not about the artist either.  It is about the Word depicted.  In this respect it is appropriate -- even better -- to speak of such art in the Church being written rather than simply painted.  For it is all about the Word.

Icons make this even more clear since the artist does not attempt to represent the figures in a photographic manner or to be accurate or proportional.  The artist here understands that it is not about how real the image looks but about the Word being depicted.  For this reason, modern art does not really work in service to the Word.  We don't need to see what the artist saw or felt but what the Word says.  Sure the artist is involved and his talent and skill is part of the process but the success of religious art comes not in our awe at the artist but our faith kindled, instructed, and encouraged.

The blank canvas of so many churches almost suggests that we have nothing to say EXCEPT in words that are spoken.  On the other hand, the rich imagery of stained glass, carving, metal work, painting, etc... insists that not only do we have something to say but what we say is not limited only to the benefit of the ear but also visual, taste, texture, and smell.  This is not invented by us to explain why we have art but is essential to the Gospel itself.  Sacraments are visible Word -- they convey to the eye, the touch, the nose, and the mouth the Word that also comes to us by the ear.  Sacramental theology is by nature a theology that expects and even demands art.

Lutherans have always been people who understood the role of art and music with preaching and teaching.  We are the Church of Johann Gottfried Walter, of Johann Pachelbel, of Johann Sebastian Bach.  But we are also the Church of Albrecht Durer and the Cranachs.  We are incarnational and because we are incarnational, we are sacramental; because we are sacramental, we employ the full resources of art and music in service to the Word.  There is a deep and abiding connection here which too many Lutherans fail to see and leave the whole thing up to personal appeal, taste, and preference.  If that is all that religious art is, then by all means leave it in the museum.  But because it is not merely an appeal to taste, preference, and feelings, religious art is not a maybe but a must have for us Lutherans.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Try telling the monks of Mount Athos that theirs is religious art and don't ask them to place a dollar value on their icons. They will look at you like you have a third eye. I think Lutherans and the Orthodox agree on the eternal value of church art, iconography, and architecture. How sterile are the stages in nondescript auditoriums of the Western mega-churches bereft of the furniture, vessels, crucifixes, stained glass, crosses, liturgical paraments and other adornments, candles, and did I mention crosses? How dismal the meeting rooms, the gymnasiums, the movie theatres, the barrooms. Church plants appear in the most unlikely places never seem to become full fledged liturgical churches and get past the trappings of the culture. Don't get me wrong. I think you can have house churches where the Gospel is proclaimed but why would you not want to worship in the Hagia Sophia given the chance? The whole point of the liturgy is to transport the earthbound believer into the heavenly realms. Give me that "Old Time Religion" like the Lutheran version of the ancient Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom.