I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep. John 10:11
A Coptic Orthodox friend requested an icon of the Good Shepherd recently. I had already painted one many years ago for a Roman Catholic church of the Good Shepherd in Oxfordshire and I was glad for the opportunity to revisit the subject from an Orthodox perspective.
The Good Shepherd seems to have become a dominant theme in Coptic iconography over the last few years. It is found in several important new Coptic sites, most notably on the exterior façade of St Mark’s Cathedral, Cairo. By virtue of this new ubiquity it would appear that the subject, in a particular form, has now been canonised into the contemporary Coptic iconographic repertoire. To my knowledge, it is not a traditional Coptic subject and I have never come across it in my own research into historic Coptic iconography. Even in the contemporary era, Isaac Fanous only painted it once or twice in 50 years at most. Therefore I thought it would be useful to take a quick look at the image, its origins and symbolism.
The theme of the shepherd carrying a lamb/sheep/ram was already current in pre-Christian times. It was actually one of the epithets of Hermes, as Hermes “kriophoros” meaning ram-bearer or ram carrier. The ram of course, is a reference to the Theban deity Amon and to the astrological sign/aeon of Aries the ram. The Old Testament is replete with Ram/sheep/shepherd related symbolism, one of which is King David, the Shepherd King. Some of the earliest Christian images of the Good Shepherd are found in the Roman catacombs and depict a youth carrying a lamb/ram/sheep on his shoulders, alone or walking among his flock. The style of iconography is classical and because of this fact, it is not readily recognisable as Christian. It is therefore ambiguous, perhaps purposefully so, for fear of persecution by the Roman authorities. The question arises in the viewer’s mind: ” Is this the figure of Apollo or Hermes, or some other Roman deity? We can therefore surmise that only converts knew that the true identity of the figure was Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.
There are two main ways of depicting the Good Shepherd image, one is the Roman (and now Coptic) way, the other is Byzantine Orthodox.
The Roman/Coptic model sets the scene in a pastoral landscape, with a stream or river, trees, flowers etc… Christ holds a lamb in his arm and is surrounded by a docile flock peacefully grazing. This model is obviously based on the frescos in the Roman catacombs, with copious addition of the realism and sugary sentimentality usually associated with Roman art… The symbolism is weak, surface deep, whether done in the Roman or Coptic style. Furthermore, it only addresses the first part of St John’s verse “I am the Good Shepherd”, leaving out the most important second part “…layeth down his life for his sheep”. The image as presented today in the Coptic Church is based directly on this Roman model (see previous post on Roman art vs Orthodox iconography where the issues are discussed in more details)
The other and, in my humble opinion, truly canonical way of depicting the subject is found in the Byzantine tradition. As in Egypt, the Good Shepherd was never a historically prominent theme in Greece or Russia, but whenever it is used, its symbolism is very potent, weighty in visual theology and mystical undertones. Firstly and chiefly, the cross is added to the composition. The addition of the cross placed behind the Saviour, changes everything in terms of meaning and firmly places the image in the eucharistic context. He carries the “lamb without blemish”on His shoulders, placed at the centre of the cross, as if hanging from it. Here the lamb becomes a symbol of the sacrificial aspect of Christ, as He Himself is the lamb that lays down His life so that many should live. To further anchor this point, Christ bears the wounds of His passion in His hands. In this icon, He is seen simultaneously as the Good Shepherd and the sacrificial lamb. The symbolic content in this composition adequately addresses both parts of the verse in John’s Gospel, i.e. the Good Shepherd as well as His sacrificial aspect, without any sentimental drivel whatsoever.
Since there are neither historic nor Fanoussian Coptic prototypes of the image of the Good Shepherd, I chose to follow the Byzantine type simply because it is Orthodox and theologically correct and encrypted with profound symbolism. The Latin model on the other hand, while making a pretty bucolic picture, is otherwise shallow, mostly form without content.
I joined Facebook when it first started in the mid 2000s, but stayed inactive for years because I found it uninteresting and useless. It all changed when the Egyptian revolution v.2.0 happened in 2011, because social media became the best way to follow events and hearing about them directly from friends and people who were experiencing them firsthand. By then Facebook had literally exploded into this humongous social media phenomenon and the whole world seemed to be on it, certainly the whole of Coptic Egypt. Through Facebook I was easily able to monitor what was happening in the Church with regard to iconography. Soon I began to see hair-raising stuff in terms of bad iconography and the misuse of symbolism, even the outright plagiarism of Pharaonic symbols and much more I will not mention. Prof. Fanous’ passing in 2007 seems to have opened the floodgates and released a tsunami that had previously been held back by the established order he represented. Now that he was gone, this tsunami was unleashing on Facebook and I have watched it swell-up ever since. Even though I do sometimes share some of my own work, over the years I have come to the conclusion that the Facebook phenomenon has had a particularly pernicious effect on iconography, especially on contemporary Coptic iconography, which unlike its Byzantine counterpart, is still in its infancy, in a state of flux and with as yet no firm canon. To a large extent, social media has unfortunately contributed to the trivialisation and cartoonisation of Coptic iconography.
In this context, errors are made by one and copied by others, who in turn pass them on, like some infectious viruses creating an epidemic of bad iconography. Repeated often enough and enthusiastically shared by enough individuals, these errors eventually become the accepted norm, like a lie can become truth, merely through continuous repetition… Iconographers are now literally created on Facebook, legitimised by a selfie with the Patriarch or a bishop as a profile picture and confirmed by the number of likes, followers, compliments and shares. Many even post their practice doodles or their first shaky attempt at icon painting… Yet others spread their name and phone number writ large across the image to solicit business, like higglers in a virtual Khan El Khalili bazaar… Is this the appropriate way to treat sacred liturgical art, like mere commodities on a market place?
A growing Coptic Facebook related trend is dubbed “digital iconography” by its practitioners and spreading on social media. These “digital icons” are created on computer based graphic applications, usually on a tablet. It requires basic computer skills, which most young people have these days. The style varies from individual to individual, and more importantly, there are no rules to follow or respect. One such digital image accompanied the headlines internationally in recent years when Islamic State terrorists gruesomely beheaded 21 Coptic Christians in Libya. Because of the speed of computer graphics as opposed to the traditional techniques and the ease of social media publishing, the image went viral within hours of the event. It was even printed, censed and carried in procession in Coptic churches around the world. Please note I am not discussing the tragic Libyan event here, only the response it triggered with regard to iconography in the Coptic context. Nor am I criticising the author of the image whose heartfelt and spontaneous response was to create the image and post it on his Facebook page and was himself astounded by the viral response. Some of these “digital icons” are strongly influenced by contemporary trends such as manga, a Japanese cartoon style favoured by millennials. Others are just copy/paste jobs of existing “analogue” icons with the author’s personal touch added to the original. The vast majority lack content and prioritise form over essence. There is even a priest in California who designs and prints his own digital images and sticks them on the walls of his church.
I could go on describing the myriad of ways genuine Coptic iconography is being besieged by the current wave of technological charlatanism. Many however call these images “icons” and consider them as valid as traditional icons. When I try to explain why they should not be called icons, I usually get very negative reactions and told why they should indeed be considered icons. I will therefore take the opportunity to set the record straight and explain why they are not and will never be icons.
In the Coptic Orthodox tradition, an icon is considered to be a liturgical object and as such must go through a consecration ritual to be anointed with holy chrism by the Patriarch or a bishop – the same is true for the altar, the holy patten and vessels, the iconostasis and even the walls of the building. On that basis alone, it is clear that these digital graphics can never be considered icons in any liturgical sense of the word, because they are only lines of 0s and 1s stored on a computer’s hard drive. Although the iPad may make the user feel he/she is an iconographer, one should not mistake virtuality for reality. Moreover, the whole process of making an icon is as important as the finished product. The technique itself is full of profound symbolism, which cannot even begin to be approached on an iPad. These reasons and more, are why these images cannot and must not be called “icons” or be used in a church, masquerading as liturgical art. If things continue as they are, Coptic icons of the future will be made by AI and displayed on LCD screens or 3D projection devices, thus by-passing the need for both the human hand and human soul.
Also connected to the above is another trend that should also be mentioned here. It concerns the increasing use of very large architectural laser printed reproductions of icons and/or monumental mural paintings, instead of commissioning new works. At least some of these reproductions are of the work of Isaac Fanous and therefore beautiful and correct. Yet they stop the tradition from being practiced and passed on. This technique seems to have become a standard practice for a growing number of new Coptic churches in the US, especially in California where the trend started. Photographs of whole iconostases are printed on screens resembling roll-up exhibition display screens. I also recently saw a video of the installation of a large Pantocrator, approximately 4 to 5 metres high, being unrolled and stuck in the eastern sanctuary apse of a Coptic church, a process which took no more than a few hours, half a day at most, as opposed to the many days/weeks it takes to paint a real one. This I’m told was only a temporary measure, but some however see it as a shortcut to having instant iconography on the cheap. Actually not all that cheap, but somewhat cheaper than the real thing, but with only a tiny fraction of durability, 10s of years as opposed to 100s or even 1000s. It should be noted that such practices are the best way to ensure the disappearance of the icon-painting tradition, and reducing it to mere interior decoration, like some theatre stage design, i.e. it appears to be real, but it’s only an illusion, a make-belief or pastiche. Like all goods in our consumer society, this is throw-away iconography which of course, and contrary to church tradition, cannot be consecrated and anointed with holy chrism. Such practices, temporary or otherwise, represent yet another nail in the coffin, since iconography only thrives through demand and supply. Such trends if continued long enough, will easily spell the end of it.
As long as there are no established standards, fads such as these will continue to creep in, as the intention is obviously to by-pass the proper study of the tradition by hooks or by crooks, by any innovative/progressive means necessary. This is certainly not the correct way to achieve a canonical contemporary Coptic Orthodox iconography fit for liturgical use. Iconography and hymnography, like the liturgy itself, must/should not be subject to transient fashions and individual whims. But that is unfortunately the perplexing reality in AD 2020. Perhaps it is time to pause and reflect on the meaning and place of Tradition (with a capital T) in the contemporary Coptic Orthodox church.
As always, what is so obviously and profoundly needed is education, not only towards the forming of future iconographers, but for the clergy too, who should be given strict guidelines regarding what is and what is not acceptable in an Orthodox church, since they are ultimately responsible for what is allowed inside a Coptic church building. However, any move toward better education must be preceded by an acknowledgement that the problem exists. Until then Coptic iconography will remain rudderless and will continue to fall further into a state of decadence and confusion, a state worse than the barrenness of the pre-Fanous era.
In considering the transmission of a sacred artistic tradition such as iconography, it is necessary to consider the master-disciple relationship, or discipleship. Discipleship has always been central in the forming of traditional artists and craftsmen, normally over years rather than weeks or months. All the great world sacred artistic traditions acknowledge discipleship as vital in the process of transmission of knowledge from master to disciple and hence, from generation to generation. It was indeed so in Ancient Egypt, as the records show; teams of craftsmen and artists of all disciplines worked under the keen eye of their respective team masters and over 3 millennia created the greatest artistic heritage in the history of the world. This could only have been achieved through the three fundamental principles, namely apprenticeship, discipleship and mastery.
The concept of discipleship is very much at the heart of Christ’s teachings and of the way they were propagated throughout the world. Coptic history is replete with examples of discipleship too numerous to mention here. All Coptic Christians have heard of St Shenouti and his disciple Wissa or St Makarios the Great and his two young Roman disciples, Maximos and Domadios. Another important case in point is the famous School of Alexandria, called Didascalia, where some of the most important church fathers like St Basil, St Cyril of Alexandria, St Gregory of Nyssa and many others, sat at the feet of their teacher Origen. The sacred art of icon-painting is the visual expression of the theology established by these church fathers. By virtue of this fact, it should be considered and treated as a spiritual discipline and as an integral part of the spiritual and liturgical tradition of the church, not just a self-taught hobby or a personal artistic pursuit.
The word disciple comes from the Latin discipulus, which means learner. A related word is discipline from the Latin disciplina, meaning instruction, referring to knowledge received through instruction. Hence a disciple is one that acquires knowledge through discipline. The most important element in this equation of course, is the source of that knowledge and the instruction through which it is conveyed, namely the teacher/master who embodies and transmits it correctly. Without this synergy of discipulus and disciplina, the continuous thread of tradition is cut and it can no longer be passed on and disappears. This is precisely what happened to the Coptic painting tradition in the 19th c. (see Coptic Civilization AUC 2016 chapter 21 for more details). Sadly, it is also what is in the process of happening again as these lines are being written.
One day early on in my studies, while walking from the studio to his nearby home for our lunch break and chatting about general studio ethics, Dr Isaac said to me: “outside of the atelier, I am your friend, but inside the atelier, I am your master. You must never forget that!”. I never forgot it and today, some 38 years later, I still consider myself his disciple and will probably do so for the rest of my life. Without his guidance, profound knowledge of the tradition he embodied and his great generosity, I would never be who I am today and would certainly not do what I do or know what I know. I am therefore eternally grateful to God for this unique and unexpected blessing of being his disciple. He didn’t feed me tons of informations or give me books to read or burden me with papers to write. His way of teaching was oral, informal and spontaneous. However, he always encouraged me to do my own research while gently prompting me in the right direction during our discussions. During of of these conversations he said : “a master does not give his disciples ready-cooked fish, rather he teaches them how and where to catch it for themselves. This metaphor is very profound and reminded me of the passage in the Gospel of John when Jesus tells His disciples where to throw their nets to catch an abundance of fish (John 21:6). In our context, it refers to the master giving his disciples the right tools and informations to discover the beauty, proportion and truth, in and for themselves. The master-disciple relationship is not based on ego or fear, but on love, mutual respect and trust.
An aspirant should not come with any pre-conceived ideas about iconography. He/she should ‘unlearn’ what they think they know about art, especially if they have a modern art college background. The pursuit of personal fame, celebrity, vanity and all the things associated with an egotistical mindset, are contrary to the spirit of iconography. One should surrender in humility and acknowledgement of one’s own ignorance, like an empty vessel ready to be filled with knowledge and beauty. For how can a vessel be filled if it is already full, especially if full of ego and misconceptions? The mindset and attitude of the aspiring student is therefore of the utmost importance in determining whether they have the aptitude, fortitude, single-mindedness and resolve needed to progress through to eventual mastery, or just temporarily passing through to catch some technique and disappear as soon as they’re satisfied. The latter kind was certainly not favoured by Dr Isaac. (see Claremont Coptic Encyclopaedia entry under Isaac Fanous, Monica René 2019)
As a spiritual discipline, iconography is to be considered a vocation, on the same level as any other ecclesiastical vocation. It is certainly so in the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is not be considered a “job” in the profane sense of the word, or some mundane commercial venture. It would indeed be a grave mistake to regard it as such.
In theological matters, the responsibility of an iconographer is as heavy as that of a priest, since they are both involved in the preaching of the Word, the priest orally, the iconographer visually. There is therefore not much room for innovation or artistic self-expression, unless rigourously subjected to Orthodox tradition and theology.
Sadly and ominously, the current post-Fanous generation of iconographers does not know about discipleship or studying under a master such as Isaac Fanous. Most are self-taught and isolated, picking up tips from other self-taught individuals, who picked them up from someone else. Needless to say the original message gets lost in translation and the end product bears no resemblance to the prototypes. Many resort to Facebook groups to ask for advice since they receive no tuition. The generation who had the privilege and opportunity to know Dr Isaac and to study under him are getting old (myself included) and many do not practice much anymore. The result of this post-Fanous apathy and laissez faire attitude towards iconography is at its most obvious in St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, whose iconography was recently hastily completed for its 50th anniversary. This subject however will be examined in a future post.
This year marks the centenary of the birth of Isaac Fanous in December 1919. It has been 12 years since his passing in 2007 that he left the Coptic Church bereft of its greatest ever icon master.
Monica René is a coptologist specialised in the Neo-Coptic School and Prof Isaac Fanous’ only student in iconology. She was commissioned by the Claremont Coptic Encyclopaedia to write its first entry for Isaac Fanous, in celebration of his life and recognition of his unparalleled achievements in the field of Coptic art.
No man is ever a prophet in his own country and as Monica points out in her text, most of the recognition he received for his achievements came from abroad, not from Egypt where he faced a significant amount of opposition and struggles over the years, but none strong enough to stop him fulfilling his life’s work and creating works of staggering beauty and spiritual depth.
I felt I should make clear that this blog is first and foremost addressed to a Coptic Orthodox readership in the hope of raising awareness about important issues pertaining to iconography in the church. Anyone is of course welcome to read or comment on the points raised in posts. I chose the issue of Renaissance/Roman style painting in Coptic churches as a starting point, because it poses one of the greatest threats to the survival of the Coptic painting tradition once revived by Prof Isaac Fanous of blessed memory. It should be emphasised that the contemporary Coptic version of Renaissance art would be best classified as “religious kitsch” rather than Renaissance art, to which it bears only nominal resemblance.
My aim is certainly not to criticise the contemporary Roman Catholic Church, but merely to highlight the kind of art that the Renaissance produced in its name. In Part 1, I suggested that Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam is a heretical work, simply because from my perspective, it flagrantly contradicts basic Orthodox Christian theology. A few readers were actually quite offended by this suggestion and seemed to be experiencing a touch of cognitive dissonance about it: “What sort of uneducated and uncultured individual would write such drivel and dare to criticise Michelangelo and the Renaissance?” one irate individual commented. However I need not apologise in the least for seeing the Renaissance as a spiritual regression or a “Regressance”, to coin a new word, not a rebirth.
The contemporary Roman Catholic Church on the other hand, is currently going through somewhat of a renewal of its own sacred arts. In this context, I should like to mention contemporary Roman Catholic artists and friends such as David Clayton, who’s fascinating book The Way of Beauty (Angelico Press 2015), I highly recommend, or Ian Knowles, founder of the Bethlehem Icon School in Israel, as well as French artist François Peltier to name but three individuals engaged in this great renewal process. Moreover, there are an increasing number of iconographic studios associated with the RC in Europe and America, some of which produce very fine traditional Byzantine icons. I am not suggesting that Catholics (or anyone else) should wholly embrace Byzantine iconography, but any serious enquirer into Christian sacred art will eventually encounter Tradition (with a capital T) in the Eastern or Oriental traditions. There is however no evidence that contemporary Catholics are at all thinking of reviving the art of the Renaissance. In fact the evidence points to the exact opposite, towards a rediscovery of the true pre-Renaissance roots of the Christian artistic tradition.
It is therefore rather ironic that the art which the Roman Church itself completely abandoned after Vatican II, should still be thriving in the Coptic Orthodox Church today. In my previous post I pinpointed western colonialism as one of the major contributors to this phenomenon, which over 150 years completely replaced iconography in the Coptic church.
Not long after his consecration as Patriarch, H.H. Pope Tawadros II published a short piece in Keraza Magazine (Arabic), in which he cautioned Coptic congregations against the use of western art in Coptic churches, especially in the diaspora, because it does not agree with Orthodox teachings and is not part our Coptic tradition. However, his call seems to have fallen on deaf ears, as things seem to have gotten worse, not better, especially in the diaspora and more specifically in America.
An outright Papal ban on Western art in Coptic churches is not an option at this stage as it would go against the majority of the faithful’s wishes. It would also render many artists jobless overnight. Some of these ‘classical’ style painters have practiced hard to do what they do and should not be blamed for doing it. After all, they only fulfil a need and as long as that is forthcoming, they will be busy. Furthermore, they could not be expected to just recycle themselves overnight into iconographers, unlearn what they know (or think they know) and become beginners again. This is a process that takes years of study and practice, presumably under a master – a luxury which is unfortunately no longer available in the Coptic church since the passing of Prof Isaac Fanous. Yet I have seen work by people who dabble in both western and Coptic styles, mastering neither, and others who try to mix the two into a strange hybrid style, presumably to appeal to all… Needless to say this is not the way to foster and maintain correct Orthodox iconography.
I realise that this post raises more questions than it gives answers, but sometimes it is enough to ask the right questions in order for answers to become self-evident.
I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep. John 10:11 A Coptic Orthodox friend requested an icon of the Good Shepherd recently. I had already painted one many years ago for a Roman Catholic church of the Good Shepherd in Oxfordshire and I was glad for the opportunity… Read more
I joined Facebook when it first started in the mid 2000s, but stayed inactive for years because I found it uninteresting and useless. It all changed when the Egyptian revolution v.2.0 happened in 2011, because social media became the best way to follow events and hearing about them directly from friends and people who were… Read more
In considering the transmission of a sacred artistic tradition such as iconography, it is necessary to consider the master-disciple relationship, or discipleship. Discipleship has always been central in the forming of traditional artists and craftsmen, normally over years rather than weeks or months. All the great world sacred artistic traditions acknowledge discipleship as vital in… Read more
I felt I should make clear that this blog is first and foremost addressed to a Coptic Orthodox readership in the hope of raising awareness about important issues pertaining to iconography in the church. Anyone is of course welcome to read or comment on the points raised in posts. I chose the issue of Renaissance/Roman… Read more
Christ in Glory or Pantocrator (Almighty), is arguably the most important icon to be found in a Coptic Orthodox church. It is always found in the central Eastern apse of the sanctuary. The image of Christ in Glory has remained more or less unchanged in content since at least the 6th century and possibly earlier.… Read more
The subject of Renaissance painting has been and continues to be well researched by western academia and it is not our intent to elaborate much on it here. It is nevertheless relevant for our purpose of discussing its influence on Coptic thought and culture to the extant of its wholehearted adoption by the Coptic Church… Read more
This blog is primarily concerned with contemporary Coptic iconography and certain issues affecting it and its use in the Coptic Church. Stéphane René is a leading exponent of the Neo-Coptic School of Coptic iconography. He studied under the school’s founder, the late Coptic master Prof Isaac Fanous, at the Institute of Coptic Studies, Cairo. He… Read more
Christ in Glory or Pantocrator (Almighty), is arguably the most important icon to be found in a Coptic Orthodox church. It is always found in the central Eastern apse of the sanctuary. The image of Christ in Glory has remained more or less unchanged in content since at least the 6th century and possibly earlier. It depicts the vision described by St John the Divine in Revelations 5:5. Christ is enthroned inside an ellipse with Earth as His footstool, according to Isaiah 66:1 ” Heaven is my throne and earth is my footstool. He is surrounded by the Four Living Creatures. Below are the twenty four priests offering incense in perpetual praise.
The Pantocrator in the following video was designed according to the Neo-Coptic canon established by Prof Isaac Fanous and painted in the traditional egg tempera technique.
This film was edited by Daniel Corbett from spontaneous clips he recorded while working as my assistant. Four of us worked for 3 intense weeks during Great Lent in April 2019 at St Mary and St Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Church in Hillsborough, New Jersey.
Assisting me are Daniel Corbett, London, Calum Rees-Gildea, London, Amina Ahmed, New York
The subject of Renaissance painting has been and continues to be well researched by western academia and it is not our intent to elaborate much on it here. It is nevertheless relevant for our purpose of discussing its influence on Coptic thought and culture to the extant of its wholehearted adoption by the Coptic Church at the expense of its own sacred Orthodox iconography. It is interesting to note that while fifteen hundred years under Islam did not eradicate Coptic iconography, a mere hundred and fifty years of western domination certainly did a thorough job of it. It is necessary to say a few words about the Renaissance and the art it engendered, as well as how its ethos helped eclipse a much older, well established sacred artistic tradition. This may help the reader put the subject in perspective and hopefully gain a better understanding of the theological issues involved around using such art in an Orthodox context. It should be underlined that an increasing number of Copts, especially of the younger generations living in the Diaspora, strongly disagree with this practice and would like to see a reversal in favour of the Orthodox Neo-Coptic style fathered by Isaac Fanous. It is hoped that this short essay will highlight some of the reasons why such a reversal would indeed be desirable.
The word iconography in its broader sense does not solely refer to sacred Christian art, but applies to all figurative art, either secular, religious or sacred, from any world culture. Over time the word icon has become more specifically associated with the Orthodox Christian painting tradition. In Egypt, the tradition of Christian iconography was interrupted around the turn of the 19th century and was very quickly replaced by western religious art. It can be said without exaggeration that since circa 1800, all new Coptic church buildings have been painted in the western style. Even in the post-Fanous era, this practice continues unabated and so far unchallenged. This helps explain the rapid and complete loss of the Coptic iconographic tradition throughout Egypt over the first few years of the 19th century. There is however a unique exception to this general trend circa 1800, when an untrained but highly insightful and talented monk from St Paul’s monastery in the Red Sea, created what is possibly the very last traditional Coptic iconographic cycle painted on Egyptian soil until Isaac Fanous in the 1960s. We shall return to the iconography of St Paul’s monastery church another time.
Born in a 15th century in one of the most powerful Florentine banking family and brought up with a predominantly secular outlook, Lorenzo de Medici is generally credited as one of the most important influencer of the Italian Renaissance. He patronised many famous Renaissance painters, including Michelangelo, as well as prominent masters like Botticelli and Caravaggio among others, as well as poets, writers and musicians, in short the very best 16th century Florence had to offer. Being mostly secular and free-thinking individuals, Renaissance artists were as much at home painting pagan subjects as Christian ones and sometimes enjoyed mixing the two in more or less ambiguous allegories. Caravaggio for his part, was known to use prostitutes as his models for the Virgin Mary, something which for obvious reasons would be considered anathema in an Orthodox context. Furthermore the idea of using live models is foreign to the Orthodox iconographic tradition. Like today’s contemporary artists, Renaissance artists liked to shock and broke taboos and long established artistic canons in the name of creativity and novelty. They studied human anatomy in minute details, as demonstrated by Leonardo Da Vinci’s most detailed drawings of muscle structures and dissected corpses. Iconography on the other hand, does not attempt to faithfully imitate the carnal body of flesh and blood which is corruptible, but focusses on the transfigured incorruptible body, which it renders according to specific symbolic conventions rather than the imitation of physical reality. In addition to this fascination for realism and the natural world, the introduction of receding perspective in painting engendered a new kind of art, fundamentally different, and at the opposite pole of iconography. This radically changed the previously sacred and symbolic character of Western Christian art. Among other things, perspective allowed for the development of trompe l’oeil, which in French means literally ‘to fool the eye’, or in other words to create an optical illusion of three dimensionality, 3D in modern terms. Hence Renaissance artists became masters at creating optical illusions of the temporal world. The potent mix of perspective and realism with the newly discovered oil medium as a replacement for the traditional egg tempera, accelerated the demise of sacred iconography in the Christian West, which had continued until the 12th and early 13th century more or less in unison with the Christian East, especially during the Romanesque period (10th – 12th c.).
For his part, Lorenzo’s elder brother Cosimo de Medici, promoted the rediscovery of classical philosophy and literature. With his vast wealth he was able to patronise scholars and acquire certain ancient Greek manuscripts from Byzantium, hitherto unknown in the west, which he had duly translated. He also founded the Platonic Academy and fostered the revival of Neoplatonism, a school of philosophy founded by the Egyptian Plotinus and active between the 3rd and 7th centuries. These factors and much more besides contributed to a radical shift in paradigm and that became known as the Renaissance and its spirit flooded the rest of Europe like an unstoppable tsunami.
It is important to realise that although it manifested in the midst of Christian Europe, the Renaissance was not based on Christian foundations and ideals, but on the rediscovery of Classical Greek and Roman thought, which help shift the Christian West from a theocentric or more accurately, a Christo-centric cosmology to an anthropocentric world view with reason and science as its new gods and humanism as its new theology. Hence the ideas that took root during the Renaissance brought forth humanist thought, which eventually morphed into the so-called Enlightenment in the 18th century, giving rise to the empirical scientific/industrial/technological model still prevailing today.
Birth of Venus and Madonna of the Book by Sandro Boticelli, both circa 1480
Whereas iconography is a sacred art informed by Orthodox theology and fulfils a liturgical function, the art of the Renaissance was largely stripped of its liturgical function to exist mainly for decorative purposes, artifice and titillation of the eye, appealing to the sentimentality and religious feeling of the faithful. While the Orthodox icon-painters of Medieval times remained for the most part anonymous individuals in the service of the church, Renaissance artists began aspiring to fame and wealth in this world rather than the next. This was a time when individual artists’s name and their signature began to be as important as their work, very much the way it is today. The adulation of individual artists and musicians as celebrities as it is still practiced in contemporary Western society, originated in the Renaissance period.
The Vatican’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is universally held as one of the greatest masterpiece of western Christian art. It however stands in stark contrast to Orthodox iconography in both form and content, as we shall see. On the purely artistic/aesthetic level of form, it is doubtlessly a masterpiece of design, ingenuity and technique, unquestionably the work of a great artist, to be sure. But let us now take a cursory look at its content from an Orthodox perspective and see if the differences are purely superficial and only a matter of aesthetics and stylistics.
At first glance the figures populating the space on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, seem more reminiscent of the gods and goddesses of the Roman or Greek pantheons than Christian saints or biblical characters. Michelangelo’s ‘vision’ of God appears to closer resemble Zeus/Jupiter than the Yahveh of the Old Testament, whose representation was notably prohibited in Judaism. In the Creation of Adam for example, God hovers inside a floating piece of red drapery depicted as a scantily dressed old man and notably without a halo. He is surrounded by a number of naked youths, including a nubile female figure tucked under his left arm, while his right arm, hand and index finger are outstretched, presumably about to touch life into Adam. From an Orthodox point of view, this image is wholly incorrect and pregnant with Arianism. Firstly, let us consider that God the Father and first person of the Holy Trinity, is not to be figuratively represented since He is unknowable, invisible and unfathomable. In Orthodox Tradition, the creator who fashions the physical cosmos and breathes the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils is Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity, the eternal Logos. He is always canonically depicted with His characteristic human features and a most importantly, a crossed halo. Michelangelo’s old man on the other hand does not have a halo, a small but very important detail. This old man is obviously not Christ, whom Michelangelo depicted as a beardless youth in the nearby Last Judgement fresco. This would imply that for Michelangelo, Adam’s creator is older than the Judge of the living and the dead in the Last Judgement. Consequently, the much older figure in Adam’s creation has to be the Father, depicted older than the Son, which in theological terms means that they are not consubstantial. By extension, if the Son was created, there was a time when He did not exist. And if the Son was ‘created’, He can not be the “Only-Begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages; Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not created, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made’. If this thesis is correct, the entire theological premise upon which Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam rests, is in direct contravention of the Nicene creed. It may come as a surprise to some that from an Orthodox perspective, this outwardly well crafted masterpiece of western Christian art is replete with Arian doctrine.