Fanaticism in matters of sacred art is an attitude that can lead to a decadence more sterile than the one we are now endeavoring to overcome.
Maurice Lavanoux, “The Authentic Tradition and Art,,” Liturgical Arts (1954)
This past Saturday I caught a late afternoon train into the city for the last night of One Faith, East and West, a collection of contemporary sacred art at NYU’s Catholic Center. This was the final stop after exhibition in Beijing and Moscow. The show closed with a talk by painter Clement Fuchs, “Hermeneutics of Continuity in Sacred Art.”
It was an inauspicious title. A bludgeoning word, hermeneutics works best on those who view art through a verbal filter and/or think they are responding to art when they are simply reacting to subject matter. Nevertheless, the problems of sacred art today matter to me. It was worth heading out into steady rain if only to spare myself wondering later if I had missed something by staying home.
Flyers listed the start of the event—lecture and reception—at 6 PM. I mistook that to mean the talk began at six, wine and cheese afterward. Since my train only runs once an hour on weekends, I could arrive either way too soon or a half hour late. I took the earlier train.
My timing proved as unlucky as the weather. Customary protocol—lecture first, drinks later—had been reversed. Fuchs’ talk would not begin until 7 PM. And the work on the walls was a letdown. With few exceptions, the show confirmed my growing assent to the Orthodox distinction between sacred art and mere secular art with religious subject matter. It illustrated, too, the distance between piety and genius.
While several names were familiar, only two artists merited a second look: Dony McManus, an Irish artist and something of an entrepreneur in sacred art circles; and Sr. Eliseea Papacioc, an Orthodox Romanian nun and iconographer living in rural Romania.
McManus contributed an exquisite drawing of the corpus from Hendrik Terbrugghen’s Crucifixion with Virgin and St. John. I regret having only a jpg. of McManus’ drawing. You simply cannot see on screen the delicacy of his hand or fully grasp the intelligence and vitality of his translation into line of a tonal painting. (We are so accustomed to online images that it is easy to forget the physicality of an artwork, particularly that of a drawing.)
However fine, McManus’ drawing remains a copy of part of a painting from the Dutch Golden Age. It is a beautiful rendition of its model but what distinguishes it as sacred art? Neither subject matter nor an artist’s piety qualify art as sacred. Technique and touch applied to the rendering of a religious theme does not differ from what would be used to depict any moodily lit, anatomically correct figure in space. In formal terms, the drawing is an exercise in picture making (as is the Caravaggesque painting it borrows from.)
That detracts not a jot from the loveliness of the artist’s hand, but it departs from the call to transcendent reality that is the purpose of sacred art, and which informs the heart of the icon tradition. Abstract qualities necessary to suggest religious mystery evaporate in verisimilitude. In the end, much of what Western tradition after the Romanesque and early fourteenth century takes as sacred art is really history painting, albeit of a religiously significant subject.
Here, Sr. Eliseea alone eclipses pious sentiment and rises to compelling sacred art. She is not a copyist, not merely replicating older work. Rather, she inhabits the icon tradition, infusing historic patterns with a quality of concentration, precision, and refinement distinctly her own. Think of it in musical terms. The process of writing an icon bears analogy to the way a modern musician might interpret an historic and venerable score. Yo Yo Ma, Arthur Russell, and Mstislav Rostropovic can each play Bach’s Cello Suites; yet each will sound different from the other when they do.
It is said that to write an icon is like standing in prayer. Looking at her work, you trust the truth of Vladislav Andreyev’s words:
What we are trying to do in our icon writing, both on the board and in our souls, is . . . to grasp or become in touch in some way with the Logos.
No emotion is depicted on the icon board, only hieroglyphic formulas—principles—of depiction. There is no effort to convey the psychological reality esteemed in the Western portrait tradition. All emphasis in is on leading the viewer in continuous motion toward an ascendant reality outside time and history. Sr. Eliseea’s incantatory calligraphic inscriptions advance the icon’s aspiration toward the sacred—the Logos—in its iconological aspect. This is a symbolic realm, conformed to theology but not identical to it.
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Guiding the selections for One Faith, East and West is the assumption that faith is primary in matters of artistic achievement in sacred art. Were that true, this would have been more than the unexceptional exhibit that it is. True, in Sr. Eliseea’s icons faith and talent are in communion with each other. But her gifts are distinct from her faith. Were she not in religious life, not an iconographer, whatever she turned her attention to would be extraordinary. She has an eye for the subtleties of surface quality and a remarkable hand.
Rouault once said that, with respect to sacred art, “one must begin by loving painting.” (Something quite different from loving the image of oneself as a Christian painter.) In commenting on the great periods of religious art in the past, Chagall remarked “. . . there were good and bad artists even then. The difference did not lie in their piety but in their painterly ability.
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Overall, there was not enough of interest to keep me hanging about the gallery for at least another hour. I ducked out into a downpour to an overpriced Italian restaurant close by. Pappardelle con ragù degli Appennini is, undeniably, a thing of beauty. And Montepulciano is good for wet feet.
I never made the lecture. It was not necessary. There was nothing talk could add to the testimony on the walls.