Depicting God in Art

Some time ago on this blog I discussed the remarkable novel by Orhan Pamuk, ‘My Name is Red’. Set in Constantinople not long after the Turks had come to power, it deals with the impact of Western forms of art on local traditions. Something similar occurred in Russia during the seventeenth century, as James Billington reminds us in his book The Icon and the Axe: ‘scenes of Christ’s passion and crucifixion borrowed from the West began crowding out the more exalted images of transfiguration and resurrection that had traditionally dominated the iconography of the Savior in the East.’ Indeed, ‘a new illuminated manuscript even depicted the long-proscribed figure of God the Father – as a fat and prosperous figure reclining on a divan.’

There is much to ponder here. The traditions of Turkish and Russian art were not the only ones threatened by the spreading influence of the art of the Italian renaissance, and it would be fascinating to examine in a systematic way the various accommodations and reactions that occurred among those who were subjected to it. (A similar phenomenon, the impact of Byzantine art as it spread from Constantinople across an arc stretching from Sicily to Russia and beyond in the central and later middle ages, would be similarly interesting to study…but is there anyone capable of undertaking such a task? does anyone know enough languages?)  The matters mentioned by Billington also raise the issue of how Orthodoxy, a form of Christianity much given to iconography, portrays the Divine. Traditionally there has been no problem with portraying the incarnate Son, the eternal second person of the Trinity, in the human form He assumed. But it is surely a sound instinct to avoid representing the Father, who has not been seen (John 1:18, 1 Tim 6:16). With stories from the Old Testament, such as that of the Hospitality of Abraham that formed the basis of a famous icon bySt Andrew Rublev, in mind, pseudo-Dionysios observes that God appeared to various people; ‘This kind of vision, that is to say where the formless God is represented in forms, is rightly described by theological discourse as theophany.’ And those paintings of the Trinity representing the three persons by an old man, a young man and a fluttering dove, such as the Heavenly and Earthly Trinities by Murillo to be seen in the National Gallery in London, where Christ is indeed shown as a boy, make it very hard to take the Holy Spirit seriously. There are some things better not expressed in art.

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