Tuesday, July 17, 2018

How Artists Create a Dynamic of Prayer Through Style and Content in Sacred Art

As I described last week, praying with sacred art is not difficult if it is practiced regularly, and if the art is well chosen. Some holy images are created so as to promote good prayer, by artists who understand deeply what prayer is and how visual imagery can nourish it. In this article, I will consider how artists working within the three liturgical traditions of the Church - the iconographic, the Gothic and the Baroque - have employed the visual vocabulary of style to this end. I should point out that this analysis is my own. I cannot cite accounts from the artists themselves of their intentions in order to support what I am saying. I am drawing personal experience of painting and praying with art to formulate the account that I give you now.

Prayer is “...the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God” (CCC 2559), and within these aspects listed by the Catechism, we can distinguish also between two movements. One is passive (or receptive) by which we listen to what God is saying to us. The other is active, responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, by which we might, for example, give praise or thanks to God or ask something of Him.

A well-painted piece of sacred art will engage the viewer in such a way that it promotes both attitudes of prayer, active and passive, and each of the traditions of liturgical art has been developed to serve this double role, but in different ways. Each is painted to use visual devices that engage us, so that we might see what God is telling us through the image, and then be inspired to respond in love.

Iconographic art and Gothic art employ similar techniques, and as a result, engage us in a similar dynamic of prayer. Both are more stylised and less naturalistic than later Western traditions such as the Baroque. The less naturalistic styles of these traditions promote a sense of emotional distance between the observer and the Saint portrayed; the lack of naturalism always gives a painting an other-worldly feel. The stylization is also deliberately unsentimental - it does not evoke the sense of a Hallmark type prayer card, for example - and this ensures that we are not beguiled by prettiness. The austerity reminds us that this is an image and not the actual Saint. A spiritual hunger is created by this as we long for a relationship with the real Saint. At this point there is a mental jump in our imaginations, and our thoughts move from the image to the real Saint in heaven.

The image acts as a mental stepping stone by which we come to contemplate the real Saint in heaven. This is why these styles of art are often described as “windows to heaven.” When we see Christ in an icon, through this image there is a profound awareness of the real Christ beckoning to us from heaven and saying, “Come to me, join me in heaven!”
There is another way in which an image can create a sense of distance, which the power of the prayer dynamic just described overcomes. This is the way that the artist combines the angle of vision with the amount of detail visible. I will explain how this works.

In nature, the closer you are to an object the wider the angle of vision. So a man close to us appears large and the angle that subtends his limits - say from feet to head - is large. However, if the man moves away from us, that angle is reduced. We naturally judge how far away a man is from us by matching his apparent height (i.e. angle vision) with the height we assume him to be. Without being able to quote precise numbers we develop through experience an innate sense of the fact that a man who is 6ft tall will create an angle of vision of about 15 degrees of arc when he is 18 feet away.

If the artist wants to control the perception of distance, he must be aware of the point where the image is most likely to be observed from, and then he controls the angle of vision accordingly to create the desired perception of distance. So if the image is seen from 12 feet away, and the image is 4 feet high, then the angle of the arc that subtends the height of the image will be about 15 degrees; we will not think we are seeing a 4 foot tall man 12 feet away, but a 6 foot-tall man 18 feet away. We assume this because on the whole, men aren’t only 4 feet tall.

A reasonable question might be, but there are some people who are 4 feet tall; how do we know that this isn’t a life-size image of one of them? The answer is that there are other signs. First of all, we do the same intuitive calculation for every other person or object portrayed in the picture. We quickly gauge that unless everything else in the painting is also proportionately reduced in size, which is unlikely, then this person is a 6 feet tall, not 4. As I mentioned before, we don’t think of the numbers when we look at the image, any more than when we look at an ordinary person, we just have a sense of how far away someone is and how tall he is.

Something else that gives us a clue as to how far away something is from us is the amount of discernible detail we can make out, what we might call “detail perspective.” Through the experience of seeing things around us, we know whether, e.g., at a distance of 18 feet, we can to make out individual strands of hair on a head, or if we will see a broad swathe of color which we recognize as a mass of hair. It takes great skill for an artist to match this detail-perspective with the angle of vision so that all is in harmony. If the two factors are not in harmony, then usually we will sense that something is wrong, and we feel uneasy about it. Getting the balance of these two effects wrong is a common error made by inexperienced or poor artists. It is a fault of many well-known artists who should have known better, for example, many of the Pre-Raphaelites. Their paintings were over-packed with detail, so that every blade of grass and every individual leaf might be painted. Typically, our brain struggles to interpret what is seen in paitings like this, because one way of discerning distance, the amount of detail, tells us “This is close”, while the other, the angle of vision, says, “This is far away.” This generally causes a feeling of unease.

Baroque art of the 17th century, unlike Pre-Raphaelite art, is a naturalistic style that balances these two factors perfectly. However, paradoxically, iconographic and Gothic art deliberately introduced a mismatch, but in such a way that they contrive to enhance their spiritual power.

Both iconographic and Gothic art are designed so that when measured by angle of vision, the image is in the middle distance; we can get close enough to kiss an icon, for example, and it still seems in the middle distance because of the angle of vision. This further reinforces the dynamic of prayer described above. However, by the measure of detail-perspective, Gothic and iconographic art seem to break the rule of harmony with the angle of vision; there is lots of detail, and so the images are much closer to us than the angle of vision ould lead us to judge.

Ordinarily, we would expect to feel disconcerted by this, but generally we don’t. What then, is the difference between iconographic and Gothic art, where it works, and the Pre-Raphaelites, where it doesn’t? Clearly, something else is at play here. The difference is that while the Pre-Raphaelites attempt to portray things as they are naturalistically, the Gothic and iconographic styles are not intended to portray things as they are naturally. The style of both is informed by a theology of what man is like in heaven; the integration of theology and form in these traditions is so well worked out that we pick up on this instinctively. In heaven, to see someone is to know them perfectly, and so all the detail of their lives (in fact, more than simply the visual details) would be known to us. When we look at an icon or Gothic image, we see that they are otherworldly, and therefore the excess detail doesn’t seem unfitting to us. If this were just an arbitrary stylization that was not reflective of a truth, it would not be a convincing portrayal, but it works because these styles really do reflect something of the heavenly reality to us. In short, it rings true, because it is true.

To recap: in the case of Gothic and iconographic art, all of this “visual engineering” by the artist comes together to create a natural dynamic of prayer as follows. We look at the image, and because it seems to be in the middle distance, we are drawn toward it; we want to pull the image into the foreground so that we can establish a firmer relationship with the Saint. As we move closer, the image rewards us, so to speak, with a clearer vision of all the rich detail, which then increases our sense of wanting to get closer. However, we just can’t get close enough to satisfy our desire. Even if our noses are pressed against the image, it seems to be in the middle distance because of its design. The only way to get closer is through the use of our imaginations, which take us through the image to the real Saint in heaven; this is a profound connection that nourishes prayer. The Saints in heaven call us to be with them through the sacred art; each is saying, “Come to me and be in heaven with me.” The image of Our Lady will be seen, for the most part, from a great distance, and so will have a small angle of vision when viewed by most people.
Some will point out, quite legitimately, that there are life-size images in the iconographic style. The images at ground level on the walls are commonly close to life size. In these examples, the artists want the images to appear closer so that we know the Saints are praying alongside us in the liturgy. But even then, in my experience, the images are often slightly smaller than full-size on the side walls. (Often, but not always; this shows icons where are definitely close to life size, if not larger. This is the reason why I carefully inserted the word “generally” before my argument above.) I would say in regard to these paintings, that the other stylistic aspects that affect our engagement in the way I describe are still present, and these continue to reinforce the heavenly, otherworldly reality of the image. Secondly, if I was commissioning or painting such images today (a big “if”, I hear some of you say!), I would make efforts to ensure that there were no mixed messages by making them just slightly smaller than life-size.
Baroque art contains a visual vocabulary of style which, in contrast to the iconographic and Gothic styles, is intended to portray man on earth, what John Paul II called “historical man”, in a Christian way. This naturalistic, but nevertheless authentically liturgical style has been carefully worked out so that, in contrast to the iconographic and Gothic styles, the level of detail matches perfectly the perceived distance of the image from the observer when judged by angle of vision. This creates a different dynamic of engagement, and therefore of prayer, from that generated by iconographic and Gothic art.

To illustrate, consider the following situation: have you ever had the experience of seeing a beautiful large traditional oil painting in an art gallery? If you are like me, you want to get closer, but when you approach the image, it transforms. What was originally a clear image changes into a mess of rough brush strokes and you can no longer see the image as clearly. Then, in order to make it cohere visually again, you have to retreat back to the place where you first saw it. This is not accidental. The artist has deliberately painted the image so that it is out of focus when you are close, and in focus when you are several feet away.

Baroque art generally works like this. This effect is that rather drawing us into the image, as a Gothic painting might, the image jumps out to us. And when the image is of Christ, for example, God is made present to us here on earth. It says, “You stay where you are, I am with you.” This sense of the presence of God on earth is reinforced further by the artist when this device is combined with the other distinctive aspects of the visual vocabulary of Baroque art. The strong contrast between shadow and light, for example, communicates to us a sense of Christian hope that transcends suffering - the Light of the good that overcomes the darkness of evil.

Here is Velazquez’s crucifxion.

And here are two details of that same painting.
The different dynamics of prayer that we see in the different liturgical traditions need not be seen in opposition to each other; rather, they are complementary. One can think of them working together as the angels on Jacob’s ladder. Some go up, taking us with them, others come down to give us solace, and all help us on our path to God.

Ordinarily, I bemoan the fact that in the Roman Church we are detached from our authentic liturgical traditions. (I have devoted so much time to trying to understand them int he hope of helping to re-establish them as living traditions.) But there is some good in this. We can look more objectively at the past from our current position of detachment from it, and so choose what we feel is best for a new beginning.

In regard to this discussion, we could, potentially, establish a double tradition today, one that allows for both dynamics of prayer and so enrich our worship and prayer in a way that has not been done before. We might choose the come-to-me style for the side altar and for our contemplative prayer; and the I-am-with-you style, for greater and more immediate impact, for the reredos or altar piece that is in the sanctuary and will be viewed from a distance. The task for artists who set out to do this would be to do so in such a way that each side of the coin is connected stylistically, as well as distinguishable from the other, so to maintain the sense of unity that a single tradition has.

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