Catholic Symbolism in Byzantine Art
Christopher Evan Longhurst*
Reading the language of art from the Western optic
The following is a reflection on Byzantine art as perceived and understood by the Western mind. It considers how Byzantine art, evolving as a pictorial expression embedded in every aspect of its own culture, takes on a. particularly religious context as it becomes functional, and is used as a tool to teach the doctrine and inspire devotion in the early Christian Church across the Roman Empire.
The influence of Byzantine art on Western culture after the Fall of Rome (476AD) cannot be underestimated, however, to the Western eye there is something peculiar about this art at first glance, something that seems unnatural or abstract in its images. Theologian John W. Dixon Jr. mentions how it consists of "a highly sophisticated manipulation of surfaces for a peculiarly devotional purpose" (in Art, Creativity, and the Sacred, Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, p. 287). This peculiarity, oftentimes misunderstood by the Western mind, is essential to understanding the specific style of an art that is profoundly Catholic and infused with an intense religiosity.
Yet the initial impression of Byzantine art on the Western eye often compels the observer to look away, to discount it as unattractive, unpleasant or even troublesome. The human figures appear unreal, stiff and flat. Their body parts are distorted and their movements awkward, with little suggestion of motion or change. Solemn, frontal images of human faces are characterized by almond shapes with large, dark eyes under curved brows, small mouths and long, narrow noses. The scenes often appear allusive despite expressing religious themes familiar to the Western mind. All of these features are by no means accidental, and there is no aberration here from the intended
Byzantine canon. On the contrary, this usage is quite intentional.
In a manner expressive of symbolic imagery, Byzantine artists make no attempt to copy human figures from a physical point of view. Instead they seek to abstract the forms to express a theological meaning and convey a spiritual reality rather than a physical one. The corporeal nature is therefore transformed so that the figure takes on a stylized appearance exemplified by accentuations and exaggerations in order to render it as part of a heavenly sphere rather than the earthly one. Faces are differentiated to some degree but possess an idealized commonality among them so that each resembles the other to a high degree. Bodies are purposely elongated and slender with tiny feet in order to portray the figures as analogous to spiritual beings, uplifted and divinized. Backgrounds are typically painted solid gold to represent the eternal presence of radiant luminosity saturating the earthly dimensions of time and space.
In essence Byzantine art is created to uplift the spirit and not gratify the senses, therefore it discards the logic of mimesis in order to open the observer's eyes to the invisible world of the Spirit. With little regard for the mimetic principle, it holds the metaphysics of artistic form in highest esteem, aspiring not to the condition of physical likeness, but rather to that of meaningful form, to religious significance, in which the inference of a theological supposition is provided. Each work is an opus metaphysicum, the beginning of divine immanence.
Beyond mere pictorial representation, the Byzantine artwork is intended as a religious lesson and used for catechetical instruction through which Christology, Mariology and Hagiography are taught in appreciation for the visual arts in the liturgy. One may call it a "painted homily". In order to achieve this sacred function the painting assumes a revelatory distinctiveness in which the mysteries of the Christian faith are disclosed. Invested with the semiotic power to direct the observer's attention to the inner meaning, to the truths of Christianity, it aims to speak the language of the Incarnation in a visual medium, to elicit the "inner principle" [logos] through the image. Thus it communicates a sense of transcendence by appealing to the spiritual eye, to, the contemplative gaze of the observer.
In Byzantine art the meaning behind the image is more important than the exterior subject matter. Compare a Western representation of a common religious theme such as the crucifixion with its Byzantine equivalent. While the Western artist would emphasize the physical suffering of Christ and the emotions of the spectators, making the scene realistic from a physical viewpoint — even to an exaggerated degree, the Byzantine artist would expresses the theology of the event, the significance of Christ's redemptive death in God's plan of salvation, rather than its historical reality or the naturalism of the creatures. This realism is unthinkable in the Byzantine tradition. Unlike figurative painting in the West, the Byzantine technique challenges rational discourse by infusing symbols untranslatable into logical structures or verbal expressions. It is at once intelligent and affective in the highest degree, making the divine presence substantive through pictorial form. It is more intense than Western figurative paintings and purposely lacks natural representation. Thus it rivals nature, creating a theology of image without any social constructs, dictates of nature, or code of verismo.
Earle J. Coleman, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Virginia Commonwealth University, articulates the striking force of this art: "To fully confront one of these arresting portraits is to have an I-Thou meeting in which the presence of the painted figure engages one head on, face to face; and one 'meets' the being whose spirit animates the painted image" (Creativity and Spirituality, SUNY, 1998, p. 24) Coleman touches upon the fact that it is not easy to remain unmoved or detached from the Byzantine image when viewing it. It has the power to hold one's attention.
Another purpose of this art is sacramental, to awaken the soul by the force of revelation and the promise of salvation. There is an ingress to spiritual presence, a complex irresistible invitation to "otherness", and the initiation of an interior dialogue. This art exalts the essence of form and not the form of matter, thus it relates the observer to Existence itself — to God, to the God of the Sacred Trinity.
Despite the artistic distinctions between East and West, it is interesting to note how Byzantine art has heavily influenced the masters of the early Renaissance, and how its features appear in so many of the early works of these artists. Many of the greatest painters commissioned by the Roman Church received their vigour from this Eastern tradition. In Duccio's work a Byzantine derivation is clearly recognizable.
The Byzantine influence is also evident in many of Giotto's works such as the Stefaneschi Triptych in which Christ's face is depicted by a distinctively Byzantine countenance. Also the face of Mary in the Annunciation by Simone Martini closely resembles the Cambrai Madonna of the late Byzantine era.
As a consequence of Byzantine influences on Western culture many of the post-Constantinian churches in Rome are heavily decorated with Byzantine art. This was due to the West's need for art to assume the same sacred function of pedagogy and devotion. Unlike Western art, however, the personality of the artist is not discernible in the Byzantine. tradition.
Byzantine art borrowed heavily from the symbolism of the pre-Christian traditions of its time. Dixon mentions how it "built up a symbolic vocabulary that could make manifest a wider range of states of the soul than had been present before". Many of these symbols derive from explicit allegories found in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Maturing into its own aesthetic theory, Byzantine art becomes deeply rooted in the interchangeability of, the ideas of pulchrum, bonum, and verum. Its ideal is revealed in the icon (from Greek είκών—eikōn "image"), a reflection of God's own beauty, goodness and truth, through the splendor of His Image that has its exemplar in the Divine Person of the Son. As there exists in Jesus Christ a perfect harmony of these three properties, so in Byzantine art each property is not comprehensible without the others. Accordingly, as God's salvific work is realized in the Incarnation, so in Byzantine art this is perceived in the image of Christ the splendor of God. Thus Byzantine art has its principle in the divinity of Jesus Christ, the image of God in the Son, and not in the human nature of Christ; therefore the observer of such an image beholds the very holiness of God.
Due to the sacred character of this art an entire theology of iconography has evolved from it. As with Western abstract painting, though bearing an explicitly religious tone, the observer is
able to discern a meaning beyond what is externally present. Thus the sacramental property of this art is actualized insofar as the artwork directs the heart and mind to the reality represented. It becomes the locus of a spiritual experience, of transcendence, and the means of acquiring an actual grace. Through the process of observation and contemplation it contributes to the evolution of matter into a spiritual dimension, thus contributing to the realization of humankind's final destiny. It therefore possesses an eschatological connotation which signifies that it is transfigurative — charged with a sanctifying action that renders visible the forces of the spiritual life, spiritualizing the material and implementing a process of embodiment of the Spirit of God in the physical world, making it discernible and, insofar as possible, comprehensible.
Finally, one of the most characteristic features of this art is how it remains relevant to this day. It has survived over 1700 years without significant change, from its inception in the City of Constantinople during the early fourth century until the present day. This quality is expected because, as Dixon affirms: "the sacred does not bear change or interpretation and its very antiquity, becomes a dimension of its sacrality". Today Byzantine art remains one of the most potent and genuine artistic expressions of the Catholic verve. It is fundamentally theological, highly symbolic, imbued with a metaphysical intensity, and permeated by references towards the abstract. Though most importantly it continues to be one of the greatest pictorial mediums to give praise and glory to God, and one of the most authentic visual manifestations of a faith revealing the pathway to human salvation through the power of the image. It expresses a refinement of Catholic ideas that shines forth through its sacred beauty in the magnificent works adorning not only the great basilicas of Rome today, but many of the splendid churches throughout the lands that once occupied the entire Roman Empire.
So upon second glance, and after careful reflection, it is not difficult to see how the abstractions in Byzantine art evoke a sense of elevation, of the dematerialized and the spiritual in order to bestow upon its figures and scenes an air of divine exaltation. Indeed this is all entirely intentional.
*Doctorate in Sacred Theology, Angelicum, Rome
Weekly Edition in English
30 June 2010, page 12
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