Orthodox iconography vs Renaissance art – Part 2

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.

St Jude by Roman Catholic iconographer Ian Knowles. Ian has a very traditional style and uses the traditional technique of egg tempera on gesso. His work is slightly reminiscent of the Romanesque style
The Lamb surrounded by the Four Living Beings (detail of the Conques Triptych) by French artist François Peltier. François has a more contemporary approach and uses modern materials, but his content and vocabulary are steeped in 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.

A Roman “religious kitsch” style painting of Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes holding a globe juxtaposed with a Neo-Coptic (Fanoussian) icon of Christ.

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.

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