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#282172 - 03/10/08 10:34 AM The Death of Western Iconography  
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asianpilgrim Offline
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asianpilgrim  Offline
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I have always been interested in the similarities between Eastern and Western praxis prior to the Schism and the Reformation. I'd like to share with you this article, which speaks of how the medieval iconography of the West was destroyed by the forces of the Counter-Reformation. It made me realize more than ever how East and West were once so similar; and how far apart they currently are. This article may also be of importance to the Byzantine East, as a warning on what to avoid.

http://danielmitsui.tripod.com/aaaaa/deathart.html

This was the death sentence for mediŠval art. To question the credentials of the old iconography was to condemn it almost entirely. And in fact, in the years following the Council of Trent, all of our traditions began to disappear one after another. The great tree, once so fruitful, withered and died.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Emil Male -- The Death of Medieval Art

(Excerpted from Religious Art in France: the Late Middle Ages by Emile MÔle, translated by Marthiel Matthews. Princeton University Press, 1986)

Quote
Art's rich iconography seems never to have been more alive and productive than at the beginning of the sixteenth century. How did it happen, then, that a few years later it could dissolve and disappear, almost without leaving a trace? The first idea that comes to mind is that the traditions of the Middle Ages were killed in France by the art of the Italian Renaissance.

It must be acknowledged, in fact, that the principle of mediŠval art was in direct opposition to the principle of Renaissance art. The waning Middle Ages had expressed all the humble aspects of the soul: suffering, grief, resignation, acceptance of the Divine Will... This is an art of profound humility; it is imbued with the true spirit of Christianity.

Renaissance art is quite different. Its hidden principle is pride; henceforth, man would be sufficient unto himself and aspire to godhead. The highest expression of art was the undraped human figure; the idea of the Fall and human disgrace that had long turned artists away from the nude figure was no longer operative. To make of man a hero radiating strength and beauty, escaping the fate of the race to be elevated to the ideal, unaware of suffering, compassion, resignation, all the feelings that diminish him - this was indeed the ideal of sixteenth-century Italian art...

But this new concept of art changed nothing in the old iconographic schemes. The spirit was different, but the form remained the same... If the mediŠval tradition died, it was killed not by the Renaissance, but by the Reformation. The Reformation put an end to the long tradition of legend, poetry, and dream, by forcing the Catholic Church to watch over all aspects of its thought and to turn strongly in upon itself.

One of the first consequences of the Reformation was to make Catholics suspicious of their old religious theater. For the first time, they became aware that the authors of the Mystery plays had added a thousand stories, platitudes, and vulgarities to the text of the Gospels... The happy age of innocence, when all was full of charm, was now past... The disappearance of the Mystery plays had serious consequences for Christian art... When the religious theater died out, the only remaining traditions were those perpetuated for a time in the workshops. The old artists remained faithful to what they had seen in their youth. This explains why, until the end of the sixteenth century, the traditional iconography is to be found in some stained glass windows.

The ancient formulas died with the old masters, because these practices, no longer consecrated by the theater, had no meaning for the new generations. As a result, at the end of the sixteenth century, our artists found themselves with no traditions in dealing with Christian subjects. No doubt their pride was flattered, for Italy had taught them that great artists owe nothing to anyone but themselves; but Christian art was the loser. The old dying traditions embraced more of poetry, tenderness, and suffering than one man, even a genius, could infuse into his work...

At the very time the Christian theater was dying out, the Church announced that it would keep close surveillance over works of art... This was another consequence of the Reformation. The Protestants had declared war on images, so they must be given no legitimate reason for scoffing at the credulity of the Catholics or their lack of moral scruple...

In the second half of the sixteenth century, several works appeared which deduced all the consequences of the principles set forth by the Council... The work came out of the famous University of Louvain which, in the sixteenth century, was the bulwark of Catholicism in the northern countries. As early as 1586, five years after the Council of Trent, Jean Molanus lectured at Louvain on the usefulness of images... After establishing that Christian art is not idolatry, Molanus went on to ask what this art should be henceforth. This is the real subject of his book; it is a kind of treatise on iconography which submits traditional scenes and consecrated types to close examination... His long indictment of mediŠval art is of extreme interest - we witness here the ruin of all the ancient iconography.

Symbolism, the very soul of thirteenth-century art, that beautiful idea that reality is only appearance, that rhythm, number, and hierarchy are the fundamental laws of the universe - all the world of ideas in which the old theologians and artists had dwelled was closed to Molanus. The little he says about hierarchy indicates that the spirit of the works of the past was completely foreign to him. He thought it of no importance whether St. Paul was placed before St. Peter, whether the Virgin was shown at the left or the right side of Christ, or whether one order of saints was placed before another in heaven. As for symbolism itself, he scarcely deigns to allude to it. However, he does say a word about the four evangelical animals, but the meaning he attributes to them clearly proves that he was not familiar with mediŠval symbolism. He imagined that the eagle, the man, the lion, and the ox have no other function than to recall the first verses of each gospel: and that, certainly, is a meager lesson.

To read Molanus is to sense that the old symbols were withering and dying. There is not one line in all his book that has to do with the famous concordance between the Old and New Testaments - the great ensembles that were so dear to the Middle Ages, and which the sixteenth century did not completely reject.

The new religious art was not only to be deprived of the poetry of symbol, but of the poetry of legend, besides. The art of the Middle Ages had lived on dreams. At least half the masterpieces we admire in our churches were inspired by fables. These legends had been more fertile and salutary than any history at the time when they were taken to be true; but that time is past. Molanus had read his adversaries, and he knew that it was no longer possible to give credence to Pseudo-Abdias, that is, to the history of the apostles as told in the Golden Legend. The stern theologian pitilessly condemned the stories that for four centuries had been the inspiration of artists. Henceforth, artists would not be permitted to represent the miraculous voyage of St. Thomas to India, not the struggle between St. James and the magician Hermogenes...

Molanus went further: he was bold enough to state that the life of the Virgin, as told by the artists, was not beyond critical attack. First of all, the history of her parents, and then the story of her childhood and her sojourn in the temple, might be believed by the pious but could not be presented as incontestable truth... But what was even more serious, Molanus said outright that the circumstances of the Death of the Virgin rested on apocryphal testimony only. Thus, the beautiful story that had been painted or carved a thousand times and into which the artists had put their faith and their love, the story of the apostles who had surrounded the deathbed of the Virgin, the miraculous funeral ceremony, the tomb over which angels watched - all this was mere poetry and had nothing to do with history. What would the old masters of Notre-Dame de Paris have said? Would their work have radiated so pure a beauty had they thought they were carving a legend they were permitted to disbelieve? This cold little chapter in Molanus' book indeed marks the end of an age of humanity. So, the life of the Virgin was not proven at every point, and there were perhaps some false jewels in the marvelous crown that the Middle Ages had fashioned with so much love!

Once this confession was made, it was easier to take away some of the legendary aspects of the lives of the saints. Molanus reduced the old epic saints, so dear to the people, to human proportions.

St. Christopher had really existed, he said; he was not a pure symbol, as the Protestants claimed, but he in no way resembled the monstrous Polyphemous, represented by the artists. He had never borne the infant Jesus on his shoulders, but as a valiant missionary, he had carried the name of Christ to the pagans. He did not have the privilege of fending off sudden death; that was a gross superstition. An end would be put to it by removing his images.

St. George had not been a knight-errant who killed monsters and delivered princesses; he was a confessor of the faith who had saved many a victim from the demon, or if you will, from the teeth of the dragon. One of his miracles had converted the Empress Alexandra, and it was this empress, transformed by ignorant painters into a young virgin, whom St. George had saved from the monster...

Thus, poetry retired before common sense. Unhappily, pure reason has never inspired artists and there was henceforth no hope that the legend of St. George might provoke the creation of a masterpiece.

The popular Christianity of the Middle Ages was not all that was condemned by the new spirit. The Christianity of pathos, which we might call Franciscan Christianity, was condemned also.

How many great works had the old masters created of the Virgin fainting at the foot of the cross! Then, it would not have occurred to anyone that such an image could one day become an object of scandal, but that is what happened. Through the testimony of the fathers and doctors of the Church, Molanus established that the Virgin had remained standing at the foot of the cross, and to represent her in a faint was to insult her. The entire Church followed Molanus' opinion; the Jesuits themselves condemned the audacity of painters who dishonored the Virgin by investing her with human weakness. Several pictures showing a swooning Virgin on Calvary were removed from Roman churches.

The grief of God the Father seemed as shocking as that of the Virgin. In the years following the Council of Trent, a priest in Antwerp received for his church an image of the dead Christ on the knees of the Father; this was the group, so filled with pathos, that St. Bonaventura had inspired fourteenth-century artists to represent. Such a subject might very well have troubled a priest who was mindful of the decisions of the Council; he wrote to Molanus, already a famous man, to seek counsel. Molanus replied that he must consult his bishop, but as for himself, he would never give his approval to such an image.

Molanus also thought it inappropriate to represent Christ, after his Passion, coming to kneel before his father to show him his wounds and the instrument of his torture. Thus, the images that Franciscan devotion had occasioned for three centuries were indignantly rejected... The impassioned Christianity of the mystics that came from the heart no more touched Molanus than the na•ve Christianity that came from the popular imagination.

It could be foreseen that he would show little indulgence toward the wealth of iconographic details borrowed by artists from the theater. Without knowing their origin, he condemned them. What shocked him especially was the taste for the pictorial, for the dŽcor and the beautiful costumes borrowed above all from the theater...

Nothing displeased Molanus more than the rich costumes that contrasted so strongly with the simplicity of the scriptures. He complained of the painters' lack of modesty in giving to Mary Magdalene - the sublime figure of repentance - the costume of a great lady.

His appeal to austerity was only too well heard. Strangely enough, in this the Renaissance conspired with the Church. Several years before the Council of Trent, our sculptors learned from the Italians that nothing was nobler than unadorned drapery. Slashed sleeves, sumptuous bodices, robes embellished with embroidery, mantles fastened with buckles of precious stones, all this luxury of the past aroused only scorn in our young artists. Anything that might suggest a period or a place was vulgar; nobility was attained only through abstraction. In consequence, it was under the double influence of the Italian Šsthetic and the Council of Trent that the reign of flowing drapery began.

Molanus, who liked neither picturesque dŽcor nor rich costume, was no fonder of flights of fancy. He cited the famous passage in which St. Bernard so sternly reprimanded the monks for permitting representations of monkeys, lions, hunters, centaurs, and nameless monsters to be placed on the capitals of their cloisters. This was a warning to canons not to allow the artists to carve any more childish scenes on choir stalls. What had seemed innocent in a na•ve age was no longer so: all representations of nudity were severely proscribed, and it was not fitting to show David watching Bathsheba in her bath. All the more reason why the pagan gods should not be made pleasing to Christians, and there was no possible interpretation that justified their presence in the Church.

Thus dawned an age of propriety and reason. After 1560, everything conspired to destroy mediŠval art. The iconographic traditions disappeared along with the Mystery plays; at the same time, the Church discovered, in reviewing these traditions, that most of them bore the mark of the excessive credulity of times past, and urged artists to abandon them.

The art of the Middle Ages was doomed. Its charm had lain in the preservation of the innocence of childhood, in the clear eyes of its young saints. It resembled the mediŠval Church itself - a faith that did not argue, but sang.

Such art could not be brushed by doubt. Here we see how the mysterious power of poetry and art are independent of the progress of reason. Art and poetry come from the heart and from some obscure region inaccessible to reason. The artist who examines, judges, criticizes, doubts, and conciliates, has already lost half his creative force. That is why the art of the Middle Ages, which expressed na•ve faith and spontaneity, could not survive the critical spirit born of the Reformation.

#282234 - 03/10/08 02:19 PM Re: The Death of Western Iconography [Re: asianpilgrim]  
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Logos - Alexis Offline
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Logos - Alexis  Offline
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Georgia
"all of our traditions"

Really? All of them?

Alexis

#282292 - 03/10/08 08:28 PM Re: The Death of Western Iconography [Re: Logos - Alexis]  
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asianpilgrim Offline
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asianpilgrim  Offline
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Philippines
Originally Posted by Logos - Alexis
"all of our traditions"

Really? All of them?

Alexis


That is from Daniel Mitsui, not from me. He exaggerates; still, a lot of traditions have indeed died out -- if not in the aftermath of the Reformation / Counter-Reformation, then in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Over there at the New Liturgical Movement website there have been some discussions about the possibility of reviving some of the medieval Uses of the Roman Rite, and I've also been reading Laszlo Dobszay's "The Bugnini Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform". These have been eye-openers for me. We Catholics often underestimate the rupture from ecclesiastical tradition that the 16th and the 20th century "renewals" of Catholicism precipitated. So much of what was distinctively Catholic (and Orthodox, I dare say) was lost, and in many ways the Catholic Reformation sowed many of the seeds that would burst forth like weeds in the 1950's onwards.

#282314 - 03/11/08 12:35 AM Re: The Death of Western Iconography [Re: asianpilgrim]  
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Logos - Alexis Offline
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Logos - Alexis  Offline
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Georgia
Yes, I enjoy the NLM posts, too!

Happy reading. I enjoy Dr. Dobszay's posts over there. His English is excellent and he is very well informed.

Alexis


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