Orthodox iconography versus Renaissance art

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.

A newly consecrated Coptic Orthodox church in America, 2018

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.

His Holiness Pope Tawadros II consecrating a new Coptic Church in the USA, 2018. This large mural painting exemplifies the so-called classical style found in an overwhelming number of Coptic church buildings, both in Egypt and the Diaspora.

The Renaissance

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.).  

Three studies by Leonardo da Vinci, one on a larger scale, of a man’s right arm and shoulder, showing muscles; three studies of a right arm; a diagram to illustrate pronation and supination of the hand. 
Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Andrea Mantegna, fresco, Camera degli Sposi, Ducal Palace, Mantua, c. 1470
Example of trompe l’oeil

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.

Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, Vatican

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. 

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