Monday, February 7, 2011


The decline of ecclesiastical art in the Christian west---and the decline of art in the west more generally---is a well-documented, or at least a well-observed, phenomenon. The history of artistic decline, the rush to shatter rules and co-opt artistic renderings for the purpose of expression, can be found elsewhere. I tend not to regard myself as qualified to tell it, and I shall decline to attempt to do so. But it seems, based on simple casual observation, that this decline must be related to a different trend that has arisen recently in ecclesiastical art.

The trend of which I speak here is the practice of writing icons of Western saints. You can find over at the New Liturgical Movement a contributor who writes at great length about his practice of writing icons of Western saints (among other subjects). I will here step out on a limb and unequivocally declare that I do not approve of this practice. I find it wrong-headed, counter-productive, discordant, and just plain odd.

First of all, the practice is wrong-headed. The icon is the principal form of ecclesiastical art in the East. There, it has flourished, developed, and become an integral part of the lives, practices, and belief of generations of Christians. Iconographical art forms certainly existed in the West and influenced the development of Western art forms. But the traditions of Western Christians developed away from icons and into more representational forms of ecclesiastical art (icons are certainly representational when compared to, e.g., abstract art forms, but it is certainly my understanding that an iconographer does not seek to reproduce the image of his subject in the same way that a realist painter does). Whatever the merits of iconography may be, and I do not pretend to deny them those, they simply are not what the Western Church has been using for a great many centuries: they no longer form an organic part of our tradition here. The current attempt to import them is an odd exercise in unnecessary cross culterization. What would we think if the Archbishop of Louisville appeared on Sunday carrying a serpentine Eastern crozier? more dramatically, what would a Byzantine congregation think if their pastor replaced all the icons in their church with statues? The West and the East have their own traditions and their own art forms. Both produce beautiful works suited to the cultures, history, and sensibilities of their respective societies. Neither has any need of being colonized in this sort of way by the other.

Second, the practice is counter-productive. The Church in America could furnish a large European nation with its monstrous religious art. There is a vast quantity of work to be done in rediscovering and reinvigorating art in continuity with Western traditions. Going and plastering icons all over the place works at counter purposes with that necessary work. In addition, many of these icons depicting Western saints are simply not very attractive. Take this image of St. John Neumann, for instance. The icon is a flagrant copy of an older, well-known image of the immigrant bishop. But it sacrifices the original work's benefits without introducing any of its own. It may not be an absolute eyesore, but neither is it beautiful. So we take business and impetus away from artists in our tradition, while filling the spaces in our homes, offices, and churches with mediocre pieces.

Third, the practice is discordant. It is the artistic equivalent of eating Thai food on Thanksgiving or hiding eggs on Christmas. It takes a saint---a man or a woman who served God in a particular time and place in history and whose life in that time and place has been held up by the Church as a universal example for those still on earth---and thrusts him into an entirely different setting. St. John Neumann does not belong in an iconographical setting; neither does St. Patrick, any more than Our Lady of Czestechowa belongs in a baroque statue. Similarly, to connect to points made supra, I as a Western Christian do not belong in a setting filled with icons. At the very minimum, Western saints and Western Christians together do not so belong: I would not begrudge Byzantines a devotion to St. Patrick based around a rendering made in their traditions, nor would I find it improper to hang Our Lady of Czestechowa in my own home. Both of those cases would be examples of one tradition of the Church recognizing the fruits of the other. This strikes me as an entirely different proposition from the mere appropriation of a methodology indigenous to one tradition into the other, apart from any simultaneous borrowing of content. St. Patrick in a Latin church done up like some kind of archimandrite defeats all the aims of ecclesiastical art: seeing it prompts one to think first not of God, but of why in blue blazes St. Patrick is dressed like St. Cyril.

Finally, the practice is just plain odd. It flunks the smell test. A lot of ecclesiastical-art cognoscenti look with disdain at the plaster and chalkware statuary that adorned our grandparents' houses, as crass, mass-produced, and of poor quality. I will openly admit to looking with even greater disdain at modern resin statuary, which is just plain ugly. But the fact of the matter is that statuary belongs in the West, it's familiar (and even those chalkware statues, which oftentimes aren't all that bad, serve a legitimate purpose for the devotion of ordinary folk). One need not ask questions about its presence, or wonder why it instead of something else is present. The same can be said for many forms of two-dimensional artwork at home in the West as well. Icons, though, except when depicting Eastern saints, produce exactly the opposite reaction. They are, in a word, puzzling. Unfamiliar. Odd. Some of the people who produce them are undeniably odd as well. I decline to look for them, but if one is so inclined, one can find about the internet a series of icons---produced in the same unadorned, bland manner as the one of St. John linked above---depicting a wide variety of non-Catholic and even non-Christian personages surmounted by nimbi. Nobody is ever going to make a baroque sculpture of Martin Luther King as a saint. Maybe inferior icons are cheap to make. Maybe they have simply become trendy somehow. Maybe lots of good reasons can be proffered for their use in the West. But their proliferation remains odd.


  1. I agree that iconography is currently "trendy" in some minor circles. I disagree that iconography is non-Western. Look at any medieval church that escaped the depredations of the Reformation and you will see iconography that would make any Byzantine or Copt feel right at home. It wasn't *Eastern* iconography per se, but neither did it have much artistically in common with plaster statues and dewy French Academic-style paintings. The latter forms are not any less stylized nor more realistic, I would argue, than Byzantine icons; it's only familiarity to Western Catholics of a certain age that makes them seem so. They look the way people even now expect "churchy" things to look in the West, just as our imaginations see pagan Greece and Rome as antiseptic white marble places instead of riotously colorful and earthy as they were in fact.

    That's part of the problem with so-called "traditional" Catholic imagery. To non-Europeans and those other than cradle Catholics of a certain age, the art forms dominant in the West from roughly Trent through Vatican One tend to be associated with a sort of "gentle Jesus meek and mild" parlor piety, a false representation of Christianity as a vocation for soft old ladies and not for men of action. This, I think, has something to do with the popularity of Eastern icons now: Eastern religious practices (incl. Christian) are seen as manly, while Western ones are popularly despised as effeminate and even homosexual.

    So even realistic photographs of Maximilian Kolbe or Damien of Molokai have more in common, to my mind, with Eastern icons than they do with antique Western holy card saints with their porcelain skin and baby fat. Sometimes cultural cross-pollination is a good thing, and helps rebalance tendencies and ideas that have become skewed one way or another, like competition in the marketplace.

    I also have to disagree with the charge of discord. To claim that Thai food on Thanksgiving is out of bounds is to claim that Thai can't be "real" Americans, which isn't what you intended to imply, is it? If a saint is a universal example, then by definition it cannot be out of place for any Christian culture to venerate him in images. That is to accept the same premise as the persecutors who claim that Christianity is an alien faith and is not for the Chinese, the Africans, etc.

  2. Craig, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I will readily grant you that iconography forms an important part of the historical development of Western religious art, and thus is "western" in a very real and important sense. But art from 5th century Gaul is "western" in a much different sense than art from 18th century Bavaria. The difference may largely be one of familiarity, but that's part of what culture is, familiarity. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, at least up to a point.

    I also did not intend to imply, e.g., that a person of Thai extraction cannot be a real American. I did intend to imply that it would be bizarre for me to take my Irish-Italian-extraction self and eat Thai food on Thanksgiving. It's one thing to adapt artistic representations into forms meaningful for a culture that does not have its own Christian heritage, so as to help baptize that culture. But it seems that it is something else to indiscriminately borrow art forms from one Christian culture and apply them to subjects from another Christian culture.

    I will also admit that some of the Western art produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was shockingly bad and effeminate. But certainly it's possible to recapture the masculinity of Christianity in continuity with Western artistic traditions, rather than by mere cross-cultivation or archeology. I just think that would be a worthwhile endeavor.

    I don't mean to be down on iconography per se, of course (well, except those folks who make icons of dervishes and Protestants). I just find some of its applications, well, odd.

  3. All good points. Since I think Western religious art peaked with Giotto, I'm certainly not advocating a return to primitivism. First, iconography (whether Eastern or medieval Western) has its own artistic vocabulary and is not primitive by any means.

    Second, primitivism has already been tried. It was the cul-de-sac the modernists followed, and it emptied their work of meaning and narrative. As a result Western art has been flatlined on the table for about seventy years.

    I would love to see Catholic patronage foster a reawakening of the Western artistic tradition, preferably in time before the great European medieval churches are chiseled into mosques. But since the West seems bound on collective self-destruction, and since nominal/ethnic Catholics seem to be the chief instigators of cultural suicide, I'm not holding my breath.

  4. I also dislike seeing western saints in iconographical settings, which has become very common since Vatican II and I think results from a human need to compensate for the loss of the sacred in the Latin Church. How strange that the Eastern Catholics are delatinizing their churches, while we are byzantinizing ours.