Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sacred & Profane

The feast of St. Matthew, today in the Roman rite, always calls to mind memories of seeing Caravaggio's three paintings of the Evangelist in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. The most famous of the three is the Calling of St. Matthew. The Inspiration of St. Matthew always stood out more to me, though. In it, an angel describes to the Saint what is to be contained in the Gospel, being to specific in the Lord's demands as to count them finger by finger. The painting brings to mind the eternal question of how God inspires the saints. Does He commune with them in direct words or in the shadows? The angels speaks to Matthew, but we are unsure Matthew is listening in an auditory sense. Indeed, only Caravaggio's tenebrous talents could cast doubt on whether or not an angel is acknowledged. Matthew's eyes are obscured in shadow and the direction of his pupils unclear. His facial expressions suggest attention, but not necessarily towards the angel. His legs are bent over a stool in an anxious posture, reflecting a pose common of impatient writers (Virginia Woolf, Lewis Carroll, Ernest Hemingway, and Adrian Fortescue all wrote standing up, it may have been common during Caravaggio's time). The angel is speaking to Matthew without talking to him. The dramatic film moments such as the reception of the Decalogue in The Ten Commandments do not stand up to snuff in the Catholic tradition. God and the angels do speak vocally to men and women to direct them, but these recorded instances are generally the exception. Outside of revelation, God speaks and inspires men in more subtle ways, even to communicate the Gospel. This is a strong reflection of the Western tradition of art from the Renaissance onward.

Around the same time, 15th century and onward, the Byzantine tradition, under the influence of the Palamite and Hesychast resurgence, departed from the realism of the icon that existed in the first millennium and favored unrealistic icons with odd proportions that carried explicit symbolism. The Theophany icon is quite rich, quite mystical, and quite unambiguous. The two hills represent the Old and New Testaments, the Forerunner crouches before the Lord in his unworthiness, and the axe in the tree both recalls Christ's own words about reaping good fruit (Matthew Ch. 3) and the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Greek icon is ethereal and clear, while the Latin painting is real and subtle. Is one style sacred and the other profane?

The two traditions are in fact a reversal of previous trends. As mentioned, before the Hesychast rule of Constantinople during the Palaiologan disaster dynasty, the Greek mosaic and iconographic goal was to depict the mystery at hand as realistically as possible, a goal which continues in Russian iconography. St. Theodore the Studite wrote in his dialogue on icons that in the times before Christ, God could not be depicted because "no man has seen God at any time." The Incarnation changed that barrier. Good took material form and could be depicted according to that form. Many first millennium and medieval Greek icons were very realistic, given the artistic limitations of the time and the preference for two dimensional shape instead of statuary.

By contrast, the medieval West re-discovered statuary, but departed from the iconographic mosaics in favor of frescoes and reliefs that would underline the mystical and spiritual meanings of their depictions. In the above image from the western portal of Notre Dame de Paris reflects the Latin tendency. The figures are three dimensional, but do not "pop" out at the viewer. The statues have disproportionately large heads and semi-square features. Given the folds in Christ's robes and the detailing on the book in His arms, one cannot consign the proportions and boxed edges to artistic limitations. The sculptor wanted those entering the cathedral through the western doors, walking east, from the "world" toward the rising sun of Christ, to think about the spiritual meanings imbued in the imagery rather than the artistic details. 

Then came the re-discovery of Roman sculpture and the Renaissance preference for the most realistic depictions possible. The West embraced realism and the East embraced mysticism. The two artistic roles reversed. As the Greek liturgy became more narrative based and less mystical, art and icons became the center of mystery. In the West, centralization meant less popular involvement in the liturgy, rendering the Latin rite distant and celestial, something seen and untouched. The artist made God visually and pietistically accessible. Both traditions are sacred and neither are profane.

Can the same be said of plaster statues? I really rather dislike plaster statues and cheap printed icons. Yes, both are cheaper than the real thing, but would it not be better for a church to have two or three genuinely beautiful paintings or reliefs than two dozen statuettes of 17th century saints and 19th century apparitions? Genuine beauty is so rare today that to encounter it in a real setting rather than in a museum is to lift the secular scales off the eyes of the soul of the believer and immerse him into the divine. The common plaster statue of St. James the Babysitter "St. Joseph the twenty-five year old" tends towards the profane. 

Another danger with statues is their imposing dimension and magnetism for attention. Unless one has a church the size of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, a full sized statue will become the center of focus and become an object of amusement rather than of devotion. One of the few places statuary works is in Chiesa del Gesu, the Jesuit church in Rome. Most of the statues are inlaid into the walls or side altars, uniting them to the holy themes of those places and not allowing them to become objects of devotion in their own right. 

Regardless of whether or not it is good art, a religious image is sacred if it deflects our attention from earth to heaven. In this, the parish icon writer can rival Caravaggio.


  1. A life sacred and profane, Caravaggio by Andrew Graham-Dixon is a good read - although marred by a few laughable claims about our Faith - but M.J. loved walking around Rome and visiting the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo while thinking that was near the gate Caravaggio walked through when he first entered Rome.

    And Caravaggio spent a lot of time in the Spanish Steps area and he and the great Bernini were prone to vixens and violence.

    O,and as regards, the Basilica of Saint Mary, M.J. thinks it is perhaps the architectural version of the truth about Mary; handsome and humble on the outside and filed with glory on the inside.

  2. Very interesting reflections!
    Without excluding the intention you mention, could it be possible that the enlarged head of the sculpture of Christ on the trumeau was intended to bring it more into proportion with the body when viewed from the street level? Later sculptors, of the so-called Renaissance, employed this technique often enough.

    Another interesting note: S. Theodore, on the south transept of Chartres, appears to be modeled on the famous Doryphorus of antiquity, although it's not really known how, or through how many intermediaries, the original came to be the inspiration of the medieval sculptor. It does seem to indicate, though, a continuity from the pre-Iconoclast artistic tradition, especially since S. Theodore's drapery seems modeled on Byzantine styles.

    See for yourself:

    1. Very interesting on the statue of St Theodore! Thank you for that! I cannot see the influence from the Doryphoros statue however. I will take you word for it.

      You could be right with regard to the proportions, but within the cathedral (and many English medieval cathedrals) one still sees statues with squared features and large facial proportions, even statues at eye level. For example, the ground level relies around the choir:,_%283nd_part%29_Notre_Dame,_Paris,_ZM.JPG

      Admittedly, the proportions are closer to normal, but still certainly off.