When I was in college, I once stumbled into a lecture by an art historian talking about Byzantine art. In a side note he commented that people in the West were sometimes snobbish toward Eastern Orthodox Iconography, seeing it as backward and child-like. He observed that this was a misunderstanding of the history of Icons, and the result of a number of assumptions carried over from western art which saw the revival of realism in the renaissance as superior in skill to what came before. It would be a mistake, he argued, to see Icons as primitive because they were less realistic, or to believe that they were not realistic because the artists lacked the ability to portray their subjects realistically. Instead, he pointed out, Icons grew out of the more realistic tradition of Greco-Roman funeral portraiture and that, at least in the East, the artists were capable of presenting a subject in a more realistic manner and simply chose not to.
He went on with his lecture, but his comments stuck with me and inspired me to do quite a bit of reading about Icons, their idioms and symbolism.
Fast forward to this summer. Anna had already been in California visiting her family for a week or so, and I was preparing to join her for our vacation. “So what do you want to do when you get here?”, the question came. In thinking about it, there wasn’t much beyond going to the beach that crossed my mind. But then I was reading a random article online and saw a reference to funerary portraits, with the image associated with the article being listed as taken from a display at the Getty in Los Angeles. Immediately the remarks of that historian crossed my mind and my interest was piqued. I did some research and found that the Getty Villa in Malibu California is devoted to ancient Greek, Etruscan and Roman artifacts, and that they had a whole collection of funerary portraits. Specifically, they had several examples of mummy portraits from Roman Egypt on display.
When I learned this, I knew I had to take the opportunity to see this exhibit, since these mummy portraits are an artistic ancestor of Christian Icons.
When most of us think of mummies, we tend to think of Ancient Egypt, but the practice of mummification continued through the first centuries A.D. and was widespread in Roman Egypt. Funeral portraits emerged, which, while realistic in some ways, were also often painted from set patterns, making them easier to produce in higher quantities. For some reason, however, the practice of painting funerary portraits seems to have died out in Roman Egypt by the middle of the third century A.D., which coincides with the rise of Christianity. Once Christianity became the dominant faith tradition, the old art of panel painting continued on in Coptic (Egyptian) and other forms of Iconography, but with some distinctive changes.
Just as the old funeral portrait artists have standardized some characterizations, to which they would add an individual’s distinctive features, there was a degree of standardization that arose in Christian iconography. Certain saints would be depicted in particular ways, certain poses became standard. As one author notes:
“The Eastern Church tradition places words and images on an equal footing. The great theologian St. John of Damascus (c. 675–749) points out that ‘just as words encourage hearing, so do images stimulate the eyes’. He regards words written in books as verbal icons. The text or speech expresses a mental picture. This fundamental equivalence between words and images, between theology and iconography leads implicitly to the forms being standardized.”(The Mystical Language of Icons)
In addition to standardization for the purpose of conveying specific doctrines, there was also a shift in style. Realism became less emphasized as things became someone disproportionate. Eyes became larger, noses and fingers longer in part to communicate the idea that the figures being presented no longer exist as we do.
In paradise their senses will be heightened. Feet are depicted so as not to really touch the ground, but give the slight feeling of hovering, and eyes do not look where one would expect. For example, in many icons of Mary with the infant Jesus, Mary looks not at the Christ Child, but directly at the viewer, locking eyes and drawing us in. Likewise the Baby Jesus is not looking at Mary, but over her head or shoulder, drawing the observer’s attention upward to God.
I find all of this very interesting, and one of the things I appreciate about iconography is how conducive it is to “reading,” to considering consistent themes and ways of presenting them.
Yet even as I reflect on the ways that Christian theology influenced culture and changed it, I find myself wondering even more: how have my beliefs changed me. How is the Gospel altering the way I look at the world. That’s a healthy question for all of us to consider.
Perhaps considering how the Christian faith has impacted culture might inspire us to consider how it ought to impact our lives.
More images from the Getty: