Sunday, October 21, 2018

Why is contemporary sacred art not very sacred? Ideal proportions and the perfections of heaven

So, I guess it shouldn't be surprising that the icon painters use the standard "canon" of idealised portraiture. I learned this in my study of Renaissance and Gothic Italian painting. The idea that there are mathematically precise measurements of the "ideal" human form is one of the key lessons of the great Renaissance masters. But of course they didn't invent it. Art historians will tell you that the ideals of Italian Renaissance painting didn't come from some lost Greek text rediscovered and sold to a Montefeltro or Medici noble, but developed slowly from Byzantine art, and through the Gothic adaptations. And the math of the human figure was one of those things that were considered great secrets of the trade.

How closely your face coincides with these mathematically ideal proportions is what makes us think it is beautiful or not. Of course, the beauty of a human face or form is about more than proportions (and involves a lot of historical, cultural and environmental factors) but it starts with math.

You don't have to have "perfect" proportions to be beautiful. Here's a photoshopping of Audrey Hepburn that makes her face fit more closely these classical "ideal" proportions, and it completely dulls her brilliance, makes her celebrated face totally uninteresting.

And it kind of depicts what I'm talking about. This idealised beauty, this kind of mathematical proportional perfection, is not intended to depict anything in this world; it's not supposed to look like a particular person. Applying it to a real person just dehumanises. This is why people who undertake plastic surgery either to try to preserve their youth or (even more scary) to remodel themselves after some artificial, cultural standard of beauty, always end up looking bizarre and frightening. Neither Fra Angelico's angels nor Barbie dolls are supposed to look like human beings, and human beings trying to make themselves look like them are really just trying to flee from their own real selves.

But at the same time, this is why it makes perfect sense for the canon of Byzantine and Gothic and early Renaissance sacred art to follow these ideal proportions very closely, since the art form is heavily symbolic. These idealised, mathematical proportions for the human form was a technique developed by the Greeks and Egyptians (and probably Babylonians) to help them depict their gods in painting and sculpture. Math and sacred art have always gone together, and have always been understood to depict some reality that isn't normally visible.

This is why these modern "sacred art" paintings that try to "humanise" sacred persons using modern visual standards fail as sacred art. This is a function of Modernism, both in its artistic and theological expressions; the urge to de-sacralise the subject by naturalising it. But naturalistic visual language has become so ubiquitous - the photograph is now the only visual standard - that modern viewers of sacred art, while they may be aware that these works fail to do what they're advertised to do, fail to do what the art of Fra Angelico did, they often do not understand why.

The point with sacred art is not to depict the subject - the Virgin Mary or an angel, for instance - as looking like a particular person, but to depict a completely different order of reality, one that "eye has not seen..." and which cannot ever be fully grasped by the human mind in this life.

The point of sacred art is to depict the idealised form of the person. Kind of like those videos of Korean girls making themselves look like Asian barbie dolls with face tape and nose putty... only less horrifying. In fact, those weird videos, and this strange thing of completely modifying your face or body to fit some odd cultural ideal of beauty that only exists in photoshopped magazine photos, or more appallingly in Manga cartoons, sort of illustrates what I'm talking about. These culturally-derived, arbitrary "ideals" - cf: foot-binding - have led to some pretty grotesque horrors. This is because there is a failure to understand the distinction between what the sacred artists depict as heavenly perfection -  meant to be "unattainable" in this life, as well as eternal - and ordinary, earthly human beauty that is necessarily fleeting.

The ideal perfection of the Sassoferrato Madonna is a good example. Every single thing about this painting is idealised; the face, the colours, the light, the pose the skin tone... everything. No one ever took a copy of this painting to a plastic surgeon and asked to be made to look like this. The purpose of this painting is not to show us what the Virgin "looked like" but what kind of person she is. It is intended to depict her spiritual perfections and glories.

It's understood that this is a heavenly reality, something to venerate, something to inspire to prayer and the pursuit of holiness and Christian perfection. It's intended, as all real sacred art is, to depict an entirely different kind of reality, one that people of Faith used to be able to recognise.

This is from the Ghent Altarpiece. It's a picture not of a mere human person, a pretty but rather overdressed young woman, reading a book in this world. It's a picture of life in heaven, eternal, unchanging, perfect and glorified. It is an attempt to depict a kind of reality that we will never see with our eyes in this life, at least, not until the Changing of the World.

Every single thing about it is symbolic. The flowers, the gold, the pearls, the book, the pose... everything. You don't just look at a painting like this, you read it. And to do that, you have to know the language.

But photography, that now guides all our tastes in pictorial art,  has caused us to forget the language of sacred art. Now we take a banal, earthly thing, a photograph of a pretty woman, and hold it up as some kind of ideal, and try to make ourselves look like it. Women who are older or fatter or less "even-featured" than the photograph don't feel uplifted by it; they feel intimidated and oppressed by the demand it makes.

The this-worldlinness of photography is what makes it completely inappropriate as a model for sacred art.

So, now instead of paintings like the ones above, modern "sacred artists" (I exclude here the ones who are merely mocking sacred art with postmodern "irony") are producing works founded on a totally earthly, this-worldly visual language.

And it ends up being trite, uninteresting and ultimately disappointing. You can't help but look at it and think, If this is what heaven is like, how are we supposed to spend our lives - and if necessary our deaths - trying to obtain it? How is it different from what we've got now?

How many jumps is it from this...

These aren't cherubs; they're just a couple of human kids.
That's not the Blessed Virgin; it's a studio model, a particular person, playing her.

... this?

The weirdness of the first one as a work of devotional art intended for a church altar, the reason it just sits oddly, is that its visual language is not that of classical sacred, devotional art, but of film. We're used to movies in which sacred persons are being played by actors, so in a sense we're accustomed to being lied to about their identity. It's OK for a movie because that's how that art form works. But these paintings use the same framework, and it fails, because film and sacred painting have completely different purposes. Having models "play" these people for paintings pushes back the depiction of heavenly glory that sacred art is intended for, into the mental framework of a film, in which the viewer is supposed to suspend his disbelief. He's supposed to watch a movie and just put into a mental cupboard the fact that Jesus is being played by Robert Powell or Jim Caveizel.

But that's not what sacred painting is supposed to do. Looking at a work of Fra Angelico depicting a "sacred conversation" is supposed to be like getting a little glimpse of heaven, as though we are peeking through a magical window. It's what Byzantine icons are intended to be; a window through which the sweet and wild winds of heaven blow.

But modern people are more used to watching movies at home about the life of Jesus than they are used to looking at a Fra Angelico or Pinturicchio altarpiece in their local parishes. This is why there has been such a wide acceptance of this kind of modernistic, photographically-informed painting, especially among "conservative" North American church-goers. And I'll admit it's a step up from the horrors of postmodern abstract "sacred art". (I mean horrors, for real.)

But sacred art and photography can really have very little to do with each other; their purposes are completely different. Whereas photography is a merely scientific rendering of physical objects in space, sacred art is intended to depict perfected, heavenly reality, one that we can never fully appropriate in this life, and for which mathematics is the only adequate earthly analogy.

Until modern Catholic painters trying to produce new sacred art understand the difference, and start learning the old, lost language of mathematically idealised forms, they're going to keep producing stuff that just looks ... well... modern, a naturalistic and essentially this-worldly, material reality.



Thomas said...

More, please! Where do you learn this? This explains much. I gave up fine art for commercial art when I was a confused, conflicted youngster. I'd love to go back to painting someday.

tubbs said...

I’d love to hear you on the subject of Mormon religious art/illustration.

Lacey said...

The Virgin with the hot guy and the snake looks very much like a sulky teenager who has just told her parents to bug off, she's going to live her own life her way.

And although she doesn't look like her, she reminds me of the dressed up teenager who plays Galadriel in Lord of the Rings. Neither look like the queen of anything but their dressing table.

Using photos of real people is one thing; being completely tone deaf to emotional expression is even worse.

And what in the world is the symbolism of that painting supposed to be? The snake looks like it is about to bite her. She certainly isn't stepping on its head.

Lynne said...

And why is she being crowned with a papal tiara? I hate modern religious art.

Dr. Mabuse said...

I would not have guessed that that was the Virgin Mary. She's missing all the signifiers: no halo, no Christ Child, no blue mantle, no crown of stars or moon at her feet. What with the papal tiara, I thought that it was a portrait of the mythical Pope Joan. Maybe the guy she'd knocked down symbolized the patriarchy. Actually, I think I'll stick with that interpretation, it makes more sense than trying to cram this picture into a normal framework of sacred art.

Matt K said...

Good post. It got me thinking about the sad state of modern Church architecture. There was a time when art and architecture went hand in hand as a sort of visual catechism for the faithful. The first time I walked into a Gothic cathedral, I knew I was somewhere special.

When we finally do wake up from this nightmare, most modern churches will have to be razed to the ground. They represent a clear and present danger to souls.

susan said...

Have you ya seen this one?....I just have no words. A level of talent that nearly makes me weep.

David Bertrand said...

A lady friend has a book about art in the Louvre. In it I found the Medieval sacred art very inspiring. When it got to the Renaissance sacred art, it was all about the human form. Not so indpirins.

Lacey said...

I agree. Renaissance art may be more sophisticated technically in regard to perspective, anatomy, etc., but it's mostly bulging muscles and bodies. Looked at a Caravaggio today where the male on the left appeared naked from the waist down. He was probably wearing some kind of tights, but that fanny was his most prominent feature.

Medieval art is all about faces, and the spirit of the person.

K said...

Please remove my artwork that was used without permission or I will take legal action. Unsure what this is, please let me know your email and I will tell you.

Pawel M said...

Sacred Art that uses live models is a style that requires mastery to be done right. Some work is done poorly, yes, but there are very good works out there that give a glimpse of Heaven. This blog is purely subjective opinion and does not do justice to artists with real talent who put decades of work into their trade. The author should focus on establishing credibility as a painter before being a critic.