02 August 2012

The Religious Perspective of Eternity in Art

I'm currently reading The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch, a wonderfully broad and rambling novel. In it, one of the principal characters, Max, is teasing a former art history student and what follows is an interesting exposition on perspective and eternity in medieval art ...
"Perhaps we should see everything in perspective." [said Max.]
"What perspective?"
This time she seemed to understand him even better than he had intended. She turned onto her stomach and said didactically:
"Eternity and perspective are incompatible. Shall I tell you something, Dutch Max? Perspective was discovered int he fifteenth century. Up till then God had always fitted very naturally into the space of the painting, a Madonna and child for example, but that space itself was unnatural. He simply sat on a throne in the blue sky, above the Madonna, with some circles and stars around him; or on the left you had St. Dionysius wearing an elegant mitre in a dungeon and on the right later after his head had been chopped off, and in the center Christ, naked on the cross hundreds of years earlier, surrounded by the twelve apostles in bishop's robes: all of that quite naturally in one impossible space at one impossible moment. But with the discovery of central perspective, natural space and natural time were defined. Someone on a chair in the sky would fall down, and things that followed each other could not happen simultaneously. So that was the beginning of the end of eternity."
And in many ways, the art student is right. To the Church Fathers and mediaeval theologians, the Cross was the axis mundi, not only of space, but time. The life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth were not events long past in a backwater province of Rome; they were fully present in the sacraments, with greatest perfection in the Eucharist, and in a special, personal way at Baptism:

"Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death ..." Rm 6:3-4a. And we have undergone Baptism not only that we might be present to the salvation of the Cross but also that "as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life." Rm 6:4b. By the sacraments, time is meaningless and eternity is always present to us. In fact, in reference to this, C.S. Lewis said that "the present is the point at which time touches eternity." It is that idea and that promise on which we place our hopes.

So it is vitally important that organizations and individuals like the New Liturgical Movement, The Foundation for Sacred Arts, the Sacred Art Pilgrim, and the Orthodox Arts Journal continue exploring ways to portray the eternal in art, sacred space and liturgy. The uniquely spiritual form of the Icon is a particularly potent window into this eternity, just as chant remains the equivalent form of music. We need, in concrete tangible forms, that sense of the eternal Presence of the Trinity, the eternal Now of the saving power of the Crucifixion; it is our constant star that guides us to the manger, the cross, and heaven.

1 comment:

  1. If you were an art historian you might have been aware that that the painting you presented to illustrate your post was post Medieval. Renaissance in fact, when perspective was supposed to have gained importance.

    If what those words of Mulisch's character were true we would not have the Sistine Chapel, Rafael’s religious work, El Greco’s . We would not have Breugel. We woudl not have Titian. We would not have the Baroque with all it’s ascension narratives. We would not have Carravagio who put the invisible God in the middle of humanity, he did not need some symbolic white bearded man in a chair surrounded by stars. We would not have Roualt, Salvador Dali, Matisse, Chagall; We would not have Pollock or Rothko or Frankenthaler; we would not have Keifer or Richter. We woudl not have Goldsworthy or Kandinsky. All these artists were concerned with the transcendent even if not all of them Christian; and they are only the ones I can remember.

    The biggest damage done to the decline of the the art’s depiction of eternity was by the church itself, the Protestant church which banished artists from the church, destroyed their art and ushered in the age of enlightenment and the dominance of the rational mind.