Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Should There Be A Frame on Sacred Art? What Should it Look Like?

Should it be like this?    

or this?

or this?

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or doesn't it matter?

When I recently did a painting of a seascape  to hang on the wall of the office of lawyer Ray Tittman (founding partner of the California office of law firm Edison, McDowell & Hetherington LLP). He wanted something that was consistent with the Faith, and would bear witness without being too obvious  - appropriate to a lawyer's office in a modern block in downtown Oakland. I suggested a slightly abstracted landscape that would reflect the beauty of God's Creation and through harmonizing with the color scheme of the office,  could set a mood for an office and then in a discrete way put a small Holy Image on the wall in his personal space behind the desk that was nevertheless clearly visible to his clients. In fact he asked for a seascape and it was delivered earlier this year. I was asked by some who saw it about the red border on the painting (as you can see below and above, left). Why did I do this they asked, is it just for aesthetic reasons?  


The answer in fact is no. I thought about it very carefully, and here is my thinking. I did consider the aesthetics of course, but I think also that as a general principle, a frame and or a border are necessary parts of a painting. One the one hand, this was a modern office and in the other offices and main foyer there were modern abstract paintings. To be in harmony with these, I wanted to accommodate the modern style of edging (the cream yellow strip that runs down the side of the canvas) so that it would harmonize with the other paintings. An ornate gilded baroque frame would not have looked right here, but I wanted something more noticeable than just a thin wooden edge. After thinking about it, I deliberately added a red border around the painting, which is just painted in oil paint like the rest of it. I got this idea from my experience of painting icons and gothic style images, where often the border is painted into the image itself. 

If you go around any museum of modern art you will see oil paintings hanging on the wall without any obvious frame at all. If there is anything visible you will see that thin wooden strip around the edge. This strip is applied more to hide the nails or staples that are used to fix the canvas to the wooden stretcher bars and is deliberately painted and fixed in such a way that it isn't very noticeable.


It might be that even the modern curator would choose this style of frame for positive reasons - ie not just to hide nails - because he likes the neatness of the edging perhaps. However, I doubt that any would assert that a painting ought to be visibly framed for theological reasons, as I would. As I will explain below, in my view, this lack of interest in a framing is consistent with the modern atheist/materialist worldview; as a Christian I chose to adapt the modern method and deliberately painted a border and made the edge and the border in contrasting but complimentary colors so that both would be seen very clearly.

Here are my reasons:
When I went to icon painting classes from Orthodox teachers, I was always asked to put a border around the image of the icon I was studying. I was told that this served the purpose of mediating between the image, which portrays the heavenly dimension and the natural world. The border in this case was a flat painted or gilded region raised slightly from the plane of the image. If the composition allowed for it, we designed the icon so that a figure encroached slightly into the boundary region, perhaps the sleeve, a foot or the halo. Aidan Hart, my teacher, told me that this encroachment communicates the idea that nothing can contain God.

Looking generally, at images painted in the iconographic tradition the principle of the boundary represented in some form appears to be the norm. Going around the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, for example, all had a boundary painted on and most, but not all, had a raised boundary. These were all wooden panel icons. Iconographic images in other media, such as mosaic, fresco and illuminated manuscript will, from what I have observed, generally have a painted border, but the image and frame are in the same plane.

In Western iconographic imagery, such as Celtic, Ottonian or Romanesque art, the border is painted as an ornate abstract pattern, often geometric in form. This is consistent with the previously stated idea of the border or frame mediating between the image and reality. The world of geometry, like that of mathematics, is an idealized domain that sits between the natural and the supernatural. We can think of the ideal shape of a triangle in the abstract, separated from all matter; but at the same time this ideal it can be applied, albeit imperfectly, to matter and we can construct, for example, wooden triangles. Also, the world of geometry and mathematics also obeys the rules of logic that govern the natural and the supernatural realms. This intermediary status makes patterned, geometric or mathematical art perfect for the adornment of a border.  The image below is from an ancient Irish manuscript of about the 8th century.

It has occurred to me that there is a practical reason for having a raised border on wooden panel icons. Unlike frescos and mosaics, they are portable and are meant to be handled, kissed and raised in procession. It is inevitable that they will get chipped and damaged in the rough and tumble of devotional prayer! Raising the border, will help to ensure that it gets damaged rather than the image it frames – just like the idea behind the fender on a car. Aidan Hart, my teacher, always used to joke that an icon hasn’t been serving its purpose if it isn’t bashed about a bit.

So what about the other liturgical traditions of the Church, the gothic and the baroque? They do not portray the heavenly realm in the same way – is there need for a frame there too? The answer is yes. Here is a close-up of a baroque frame.

In consideration of this we need to state that a baroque or a gothic painting are both traditions that portray Holy Icons, in the broader sense of the term in which ‘icon’ means ‘image’. This is the sense of the word 'icon' used by the 7th Ecumenical Council and the great Father of the Church who opposed the iconoclasts, Theodore the Studite. Theodore made it plain that an image is distinct from the person depicted – that is, the essence of the person is absolutely not present in an icon. There is, however, a profound relationship established with the saint depicted when we look at an image because the icon directs the imagination of the person who regards the image to the real saint in heaven. The icon does this by virtue of the distinctive characteristics of the saint captured in the image; and the writing of the name of the saint on it. In this way it facilitates the action of grace in the way that a sacramental does.

Thinking now about how this applies to the other liturgical art forms: the starting point may be different in each case, but what all three traditions have in common is their goal, the contemplation of heavenly things. To illustrate this point: we can say that ‘iconographic’ tradition, which we have been referring to so far, portrays Eschatological Man; the baroque portrays Historical Man, that is fallen man; and the gothic portrays the transition between the two by degrees – it is the art of pilgrimage. So in the dynamic of prayer Eschatological (‘iconographic’) art, takes directly to heaven, it starts and finishes there, as it were. The baroque on the other hand starts in a fallen world, but from there directs our thoughts to heaven.

Given this common aspect of direct our attention to heaven, any argument about a frame or border that applies to iconographic art, applies as much to the gothic or the baroque. And when we look at the gothic and the baroque, it is no surprise that they are always framed. These borders are not always the hard-edged geometric patterns, but can also be shapes evoking a sense of idealized, ordered vegetation incorporating gracefully flowing lines. All three traditions seem happy to use either form of pattern, or none at all in their borders. However, if there is a trend, one could say that that the baroque frame is most easily identified with idealized form of vegetation. The form is most commonly referred to as a ‘baroque scroll’ portrays, often ornately carved and gilded rather than painted, wonderful flowing lines of leaves and branches, especially incorporating the shallow ‘S’. This is in keeping with the baroque basis of idealization, which focuses on the portrayal of the fallen nature from a heavenly vantage point, and has a more subtle idealization and hence is closer to natural appearances than its sister traditions.

So what about the mundane? Should traditional landscapes or portraits be framed too? The answer is yes, in my opinion. Baroque art is not just sacred imagery. There portraits and landscapes too, which were not intended to be simply naturalistic representations. Reflecting an authentic Christian humanism, the artists sought to reveal the Creator in the beauty of his Creation, and in doing so used the same visual vocabulary of sacred art, namely the variation focus, muted colour and contrast between light and dark that was developed first for baroque liturgical art.

Whether intentional or not, this principle seems to apply in modern art too to some degree. In the secular, atheist materialist world view there is no recognition of the supernatural. There is no need to mediate between the natural and the supernatural if you don’t believe the supernatural exists. Perhaps this is why museums don’t see the need to frame these works. On the other hand it might be just as much a reflection of the general trend of a casual approach in presentation – just as men no longer wear a tie for the opera, the theatre or for church…but this is a different debate.

Mark Rothko, 20th century

12th century, early gothic

13th century, crucifixion, gothic

Ghent altarpiece 15th century, gothic

...and finally, a picture of the seascape in situ!

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