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Author Topic: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?  (Read 10301 times) Average Rating: 0
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Kaste
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« on: December 06, 2009, 03:38:28 PM »

What happened to the Romans around the time of Constantine?  Did Christianity introduce a steady decline in art throughout the empire?  Did the Byzantines take a too literal view of "not being of the world"?  Beautiful sculptures and classical architecture were replaced with abstract 2 dimensional representations of saints, and boxy domed churches.

Stagnation?  Syncretism into the Eastern culture which stays away from beautiful art?

K
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« Reply #1 on: December 06, 2009, 03:53:01 PM »

It's not ugly. It's much more beautiful and appropriate than the sculptures. The Church is the Kingdom of Heaven and this can be represented better with 2-dimensional symbolic iconography than with realistic sculptures.
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« Reply #2 on: December 06, 2009, 03:53:18 PM »

Kaste,

I can tell that you're trying very hard to win a "most amiable poster" award, but I regret to inform you that this site does not have such an award. I apologize for the inconvenience!
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« Reply #3 on: December 06, 2009, 03:57:48 PM »

Where is the ugliness in the Mother of God of Vladimir icon? Or in the icon of Christ of the Chilandar Monastery?

Briefly put, iconography deliberately and consciously adopted an abstracted, non-naturalistic style, precisely because it concerns itself with spiritual, heavenly reality, not earthly reality. If people brought up surrounded by naturalistic representational art can "mature" in their artistic appreciation to regard abstract modern art as "beautiful", is it so difficult to develop an appreciation for iconography?

Note that the above comment must not be seen as suggesting icons are simply religious art rendered in a distinctive, "exotic" (to many) style, nor am I suggesting icons can be assessed purely from an "esthetic" standpoint.
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« Reply #4 on: December 06, 2009, 04:18:08 PM »

I think Orthodox churches are more beautiful than Western Churches (I have been Protestant and Roman Catholic in my life), personally. Boxy and domed? That's wonderful.
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« Reply #5 on: December 06, 2009, 04:22:10 PM »

What happened to the Romans around the time of Constantine?  Did Christianity introduce a steady decline in art throughout the empire?  Did the Byzantines take a too literal view of "not being of the world"?  Beautiful sculptures and classical architecture were replaced with abstract 2 dimensional representations of saints, and boxy domed churches.

Stagnation?  Syncretism into the Eastern culture which stays away from beautiful art?

K

There is plenty of art from the 3rd-4th that shows that the shift in art was a deliberate choice.  And the right one.

Conversly, with all the nutty stuff unfolding in the West during the Renaissance, we see a decline in Christian art, towards secular tastes and concerns.

I don't know where you get your opinion on Eastern art.  Being a member of the "invisible church," what do you care about the visual one?
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« Reply #6 on: December 06, 2009, 04:44:09 PM »

Kaste,

I can tell that you're trying very hard to win a "most amiable poster" award, but I regret to inform you that this site does not have such an award. I apologize for the inconvenience!

 laugh
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« Reply #7 on: December 06, 2009, 05:23:44 PM »

What happened to the Romans around the time of Constantine?  Did Christianity introduce a steady decline in art throughout the empire?  Did the Byzantines take a too literal view of "not being of the world"?  Beautiful sculptures and classical architecture were replaced with abstract 2 dimensional representations of saints, and boxy domed churches.

Stagnation?  Syncretism into the Eastern culture which stays away from beautiful art?

K
Hey, at least we have art. Wink
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« Reply #8 on: December 06, 2009, 05:31:23 PM »

  
 Beautiful sculptures and classical architecture were replaced with abstract 2 dimensional representations of saints, and boxy domed churches.


 Didn't the "classical" period come after the Iconodules won the day? And, btw, Iconography isn't 'art' to be placed in museums or hung on walls as accents.  There are lots of folks here who are well learned in Iconography and would be happy to teach you about them, but then, based on every single post you've created thus far, I suspect you're not here to learn anything.  It seems that not only are you here to antagonize, you've inadvertently ended up parading your ignorance around.  Most of us don't mind having our faith challenged, Kaste; it's how people grow and learn.  But at least have the courtesy to learn a little before you attempt to criticize.
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« Reply #9 on: December 06, 2009, 05:57:45 PM »

"Ugly" is too biased a word, I think. OK, let's go with the Western tradition of art that has stunning photorealism and (importantly) a capacity to "change." This eventually led to the various artistic movements in the West, to modern art to postmodern "art" that can consist of a single line of paint through an empty canvass that is full of as much "meaning" as the painter can con the observer to thinking it has.

The beauty of Western art is in the eye of the beholder; furthermore given its intrinsic lack of traditionalism one has to pick and choose which era of Western art is "the" Western art. Byzantine art may be "ugly," but its intention and traditions are explicit and apparent and is more than just paint on wood. And I say this as a Heterodox Christian.

It seems the one thing almost everyone can agree on is that Rob Liefeld is a horrid artist.
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« Reply #10 on: December 06, 2009, 06:12:44 PM »

To be totally honest, the ugliest religious art I have ever seen is in the Vatican. As a classicist and an amateur archeologist, I was extremely interested and intellectually excited by several pieces and, of course, the older parts of the structure. But much of the art itself is downright grotesque to my mind (and spiritual sense). The difference is striking between the Sistine chapel and, say, some of the finer pieces from the 13th century and earlier that one finds in the tituli parishes throughout the city.
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« Reply #11 on: December 06, 2009, 06:46:41 PM »

I agree, "Ugly" is too strong a word, that's why I put it in quotes, but it gets to the point quickly.  

And I also agree Pensateomnia, the Vatican art seems gaudy.  

Realism can also lead to sensualism as another poster suggested.  

But why would the Byzantines conscientiously strive to do a complete 180 degree change from modest classical depictions (Bible stories on 3rd cent tombs for instance) to strange abstract art?  Surely there must have been some Romans who still wanted the classical...it was a big empire, and I never understood how everyone could simply give up the best of the classical art for a thousand years.

Something happened around the 4th/5th century...Christianity became the religion of the empire.  And I suppose those in power were of the mindset that natural art should be suppressed?

Then again, maybe Byzantium was more classical in its art than we know...the archaelogists will have to determine that if they haven't definitively already-

K
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« Reply #12 on: December 06, 2009, 07:19:33 PM »

Kaste, I don't have time right now to post at length, but I can help you with this. You're welcome to PM me for more.

The VERY short answer is this: iconography and secular art were perceived as two entirely different things quite early on in the piece. Iconographic style has little, if anything, to do with imperial politics or decree. It has everything to do with maintaining doctrinal, theological and liturgical integrity, and the non-realistic, dispassionate (a very important term) artistic style suited what iconography was trying to convey.

Iconography is not a naive art, produced by people who "couldn't draw or paint". On the contrary: the draftsmanship required of an iconographer is no less demanding than that of a conventional painter.
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« Reply #13 on: December 06, 2009, 07:30:33 PM »

The VERY short answer is this: iconography and secular art were perceived as two entirely different things quite early on in the piece.

Then why did almost all of the Eastern churches accept Western realism in their iconography until about 50 years ago?  It wasn't just the Russians in a "Western captivity", but also the Greeks and Arabs who accepted it.

I'm beginning to wonder if the rigid forms surrounding iconography are a modern construction in reaction to Western Christendom, like "ancestral sin" versus "original sin" might be.
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« Reply #14 on: December 06, 2009, 07:45:29 PM »

Before using the same critique methods that one would use in judging Western artwork, one must have an understanding as to what an icon is, and what is its intended purpose.

An icon (from the Greek, εἰκών, eikōn) is an image. In the Orthodox Church it is specifically a religious image of Christ, a prophet, a saint, a scene from the Bible, or a scene from the life of a saint to be used in worship. It is important to note that when describing Orthodox icons, the Church describes them as being "written" as opposed to being painted.

Iconography in the Church dates back to the first century when the early Christians made icons of Christ, His mother, and the saints. Unfortunately, due to an iconoclastic movement in the seventh century which destroyed many icons, we do not have any icons from the first century. (The oldest remains are from the third and fourth centuries from the catacombs of Rome, and from the monastery of St. Katherine at Mt. Sinai.) However, Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia (260-340 CE) writes, “I have seen a great many portraits of the Savior, of Peter and of Paul, which have been preserved up to our times” proving that icons were used prior to the 4th Century. This testimony is especially significant since Eusebius was an Iconoclast. (The Meaning of Icons, Ouspensky and Lossky, p. 25)

The term in Greek for writing an icon is Hagiographia or "Saint Writing." This is because when the Iconographer (a person who writes icons) is making the icon, they are not just creating an image using brush strokes and paint; they are writing the Gospel with a brush.

The icon serves several purposes in the Orthodox Church. One is to educate the faithful about the beliefs of the Church. As different scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints are portrayed throughout the Church, the faithful have a visual catechism before them. Images of the saints are set before us to be visual reminders of those who have "finished the race" before us, and who are to be Christian role models for us. The images of Christ are to remind us of the Incarnation. God the Word (in Greek, λόγος or Logos) was born of a virgin and became fully man and fully God so that we may be saved and join Him in heaven. In addition to this, the icons act as "windows to heaven" during worship as we join with the communion of the saints in worshipping our Lord. The icons draw us in, and help us to "lay aside all earthly cares" as we worship the one Triune God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In the book The Meaning of Icons, authors Ouspensky and Lossky explain how the Iconographer is to lay aside his own interpretation of how the events or persons being written are to be depicted:

“Portray in colours according to the Tradition;” says St. Simeon of Thessalonica, “this is painting as true as written in books and the grace of God rests on it, for what is portrayed is holy.” For this reason, the creation of an icon belongs to a category fundamentally different from that usually understood by this word. It has the character of catholic (soborny), not personal, creation. The iconographer transmits not his own “idea” (νόήμα), but “a description of what is contemplated”, that is factual knowledge, something seen if not by himself, by a trustworthy witness…For a true iconographer, creation is the way of asceticism and prayer, that is, essentially, a monastic way. Although the beauty and content of an icon are perceived by each spectator subjectively, in accordance with his capacities, they are expressed by the iconographer objectively, through consciously surmounting his own “I” and subjugating it to the revealed truth – the authority of Tradition.”…The freedom of an iconographer consists not in an untrammeled expression of his personality, of his “I”, but his “liberation from all passions of the world and the flesh.” (p.42-43)

With the style of the icon being dictated by Church tradition, this intentionally limited how much personal expression the Iconographer could impose on the icon he was writing. The idea was to make sure the faithful stayed focused on the subject of the icon, and not the talent of the artist.

If one exams icons of the 14th Century (and prior) in Rome, one will notice that they are very similar to those of the East. As Rome's theology changed, so did her religious artwork. The East, however, remained consistant in both theology and artistic depiction.

Icons have a very deliberate look to them. They are two dimensional images that take up the majority of the space, with very little concern for the background. This is because the sunset or mountains in the background will not help you attain your salvation; learning about the people and or events in the icon will. The symbolism is extremely important; an enlarged forehead represents wisdom, a small mouth represents humbleness, the red of Mary's veil represents her sorrow, the blue undergarment representing her virginity... on and on, each part of the icon carries a greater meaning. It's not just there for aesthetic purposes, but rather to teach and to lift up.

I remember reading in Pavil Florensky's Iconostasis (paraphrasing) that the iconostas is not there to create a barrier between us and heaven, but rather to draw us into heaven. (Unfortunately I don't have the book with me right now to cite the exact page number.)

While this post may not win you over to the aesthetic style of iconography, hopefully by understanding it, you will have a greater appreciation for it.




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« Reply #15 on: December 06, 2009, 08:34:13 PM »

I forgot to mention that the title of this thread is hilarious!  Cheesy
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« Reply #16 on: December 06, 2009, 10:03:00 PM »

The VERY short answer is this: iconography and secular art were perceived as two entirely different things quite early on in the piece.

Then why did almost all of the Eastern churches accept Western realism in their iconography until about 50 years ago?  It wasn't just the Russians in a "Western captivity", but also the Greeks and Arabs who accepted it.

I'm beginning to wonder if the rigid forms surrounding iconography are a modern construction in reaction to Western Christendom, like "ancestral sin" versus "original sin" might be.
You hit the nail in the head, IMHO.
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« Reply #17 on: December 06, 2009, 10:04:34 PM »

The VERY short answer is this: iconography and secular art were perceived as two entirely different things quite early on in the piece.

Then why did almost all of the Eastern churches accept Western realism in their iconography until about 50 years ago?  It wasn't just the Russians in a "Western captivity", but also the Greeks and Arabs who accepted it.

That wasn't for a very long period of time... Especially not in the "grand scheme."
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« Reply #18 on: December 06, 2009, 10:04:52 PM »

Why is the Thread title so "Troll-y"? Wink
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« Reply #19 on: December 06, 2009, 10:12:27 PM »

That wasn't for a very long period of time... Especially not in the "grand scheme."

I'm not saying it was an inappropriate reaction, I was only pointing out that I don't know of any opposition against changes in iconography, except by the Russian Old Believers.

What do you mean by "That wasn't for a very long period of time"?  Do you mean that the acceptance of the Western style took a long time?  What are you basing that upon?

Also, it doesn't really answer for the universal acceptance until recently.
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« Reply #20 on: December 06, 2009, 10:14:26 PM »

It is important to note that when describing Orthodox icons, the Church describes them as being "written" as opposed to being painted.


Well, that is a popular theory, but not universal. I think saying an icon is "written" is an abuse of the English language personally, but it doesn't affect the validity of your otherwise well-argued and informative post.
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« Reply #21 on: December 06, 2009, 10:17:40 PM »

That wasn't for a very long period of time... Especially not in the "grand scheme."

I'm not saying it was an inappropriate reaction, I was only pointing out that I don't know of any opposition against changes in iconography, except by the Russian Old Believers.

What do you mean by "That wasn't for a very long period of time"?  Do you mean that the acceptance of the Western style took a long time?  What are you basing that upon?

Also, it doesn't really answer for the universal acceptance until recently.

I don't know if there was "Universal Acceptance."  I do have to admit, I haven't studied this particular subject much, but in my exposure to iconography, the "western-style" iconography is certainly in the minority as far as quantity.
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« Reply #22 on: December 06, 2009, 10:34:53 PM »

I think it could be just you. Everyone has a different opinion of good "art" (Icons technically aren't "art") I have always prefered the Byzantine style of church art even when I was a Catholic that was just my opinion though.
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« Reply #23 on: December 06, 2009, 10:53:50 PM »

Kaste,
Are you a minimalist?

Example of a minimalist church
http://www.trendhunter.com/photos/31291/5
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« Reply #24 on: December 07, 2009, 12:04:59 AM »

That wasn't for a very long period of time... Especially not in the "grand scheme."

I'm not saying it was an inappropriate reaction, I was only pointing out that I don't know of any opposition against changes in iconography, except by the Russian Old Believers.

What do you mean by "That wasn't for a very long period of time"?  Do you mean that the acceptance of the Western style took a long time?  What are you basing that upon?

Also, it doesn't really answer for the universal acceptance until recently.
No, the adoption of Western wannabe iconography comes in with Peter the so called great and the Turcokatia.  And Western dominance of the Globe.

In Athens I saw an interesting example: the church was built around WWI, the iconostasis was imitation renaissance, the apse Art Decor.  As you went back in the Church the art became more Eastern, until the icon they were writting at the time (the Vision of Constantine, the Church was SS Constantine and Helen) which was pure neo-"Byzantine."
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« Reply #25 on: December 07, 2009, 12:52:40 AM »

It is important to note that when describing Orthodox icons, the Church describes them as being "written" as opposed to being painted.


Well, that is a popular theory, but not universal. I think saying an icon is "written" is an abuse of the English language personally, but it doesn't affect the validity of your otherwise well-argued and informative post.

Fr. Anastasios, I mean not to debate you, but this is what I have been told by 4 Iconographers, several priests, as well as what is in Ouspensky and Lossky's book. Again, I'm not saying this to argue with you, but rather to back up my statement and show that it's not something I made up.
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« Reply #26 on: December 07, 2009, 01:05:48 AM »

Why is the Thread title so "Troll-y"? Wink

Hmm.  Sure seems that way Father.  Actually, I thinks it's more Kaste-y.  It's in the Troll family, but it's much more insidious as it's posts are designed to create confusion and division.  Seems to work everytime too.  Smiley
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« Reply #27 on: December 07, 2009, 01:07:05 AM »

...designed to create confusion and division.

That sounds familiar...
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« Reply #28 on: December 07, 2009, 02:03:46 AM »

I really do have to object to title of this subject as well, even with the quotation marks around "ugly".  The city in which I live has several "works of art" I not only consider "ugly" but not even deserving of the title (The "Bean" and the Picasso monstrosity in Daley Plaza to name a few).  I may as well ask "Why is post-modern art so vapid and pointless?"  The statement says more about me and the views I hold than it does anything of the works of art themselves.  Apparently many people believe the "Bean" to be breathtaking.

As to "boxy" architecture- Yes, forbid any architecture that looks like a box!  Oh, wait, "The city lies foursquare, it's length the same as it's width, and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; it's length and width and height are equal." Rev 21:16.

But, I'd like to know, are there any other artistic styles you object to, or is Byzantine just stuck in your craw for some reason?  I personally can't stand the early "Dutch Master" and don't think things got interesting til Van Gogh.  And I will agree with Super Apostolic Bros. "It seems the one thing almost everyone can agree on is that Rob Liefeld is a horrid artist."  I never got Romita, Jr, either (if the man weren't consistently teamed up with the finest writers in mainstream comics I would never touch his stuff!).
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« Reply #29 on: December 07, 2009, 02:52:12 AM »

"It seems the one thing almost everyone can agree on is that Rob Liefeld is a horrid artist."

What, this wouldn't look good on an iconostasis?

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« Reply #30 on: December 07, 2009, 03:01:15 AM »

I could totally see myself venerating that icon, Alveus  Roll Eyes
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« Reply #31 on: December 07, 2009, 03:03:00 AM »

I was unaware that Cable had been canonized.
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« Reply #32 on: December 07, 2009, 12:31:33 PM »

Liefeld can't draw feet. Look at how those two guys' legs are partially submerged in water.
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« Reply #33 on: December 07, 2009, 12:33:30 PM »

Liefeld can't draw feet. Look at how those two guys' legs are partially submerged in water.
LOL!
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« Reply #34 on: December 07, 2009, 01:06:18 PM »

Why ugly?   Huh it's so noble:





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« Reply #35 on: December 07, 2009, 01:07:04 PM »

What happened to the Romans around the time of Constantine?  Did Christianity introduce a steady decline in art throughout the empire?  Did the Byzantines take a too literal view of "not being of the world"?  Beautiful sculptures and classical architecture were replaced with abstract 2 dimensional representations of saints, and boxy domed churches.

Stagnation?  Syncretism into the Eastern culture which stays away from beautiful art?

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« Reply #36 on: December 07, 2009, 01:14:12 PM »



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« Reply #37 on: December 07, 2009, 05:47:33 PM »

It is important to note that when describing Orthodox icons, the Church describes them as being "written" as opposed to being painted.


Well, that is a popular theory, but not universal. I think saying an icon is "written" is an abuse of the English language personally, but it doesn't affect the validity of your otherwise well-argued and informative post.

Fr. Anastasios, I mean not to debate you, but this is what I have been told by 4 Iconographers, several priests, as well as what is in Ouspensky and Lossky's book. Again, I'm not saying this to argue with you, but rather to back up my statement and show that it's not something I made up.

Oh, I know you didn't make it up, which is why I related that it is a popular theory. I have heard this line for years from many people. I personally think it's an attempt to create mysticism by using a special jargon and everyone has just copied it and multiplied its usage left and right. That's my take on it. Language is inherently flexible, and if "writing icons" becomes standard English someday, I will be happy to oblige it, but until then, I will continue to consider it an abuse of the word "write" Smiley
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« Reply #38 on: December 07, 2009, 06:25:14 PM »

Oh, I know you didn't make it up, which is why I related that it is a popular theory. I have heard this line for years from many people. I personally think it's an attempt to create mysticism by using a special jargon and everyone has just copied it and multiplied its usage left and right. That's my take on it. Language is inherently flexible, and if "writing icons" becomes standard English someday, I will be happy to oblige it, but until then, I will continue to consider it an abuse of the word "write" Smiley
Fr Anastasios, I'm glad someone finally agrees with me Grin. I've always thought the phrase "to write an icon" a bit peculiar. I know the Greek root is certainly used with "write" in mind in a lot of English words, e.g. autograph, but certainly a lot of other words imply the use of pictures. We've all heard the warnings on TV: caution - graphic content; they're certainly not referring to written words; or "graphic novel" which refers to books that rely minimally (if at all) on written words. So the translation into English as "draw" or something similar seems to me to be quite legitimate, and as you state much less pretentious.
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« Reply #39 on: December 07, 2009, 07:20:45 PM »

I quite agree with Fr Anastasios and genesisone, the use of the term "writing icons" is a pet peeve of mine. While those who promote this term argue quite sincerely that this term helps to distinguish iconography from conventional religious art, they are mistaken.

The term "writing an icon" is at best a mistranslation, at worst an affectation. It is perfectly acceptable, and grammatically more correct, to say an icon is painted. The Greek roots graphe and graphia means either write or paint in all forms of Greek language, ancient and modern; the Slavic pisat' also has this dual meaning. This duality is even preserved in English: Do we not use the term graphic when we wish to describe something in great detail, as in visual, pictorial terms?
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« Reply #40 on: December 07, 2009, 09:01:00 PM »

I think Orthodox churches are more beautiful than Western Churches (I have been Protestant and Roman Catholic in my life), personally. Boxy and domed? That's wonderful.
Most of the most beautiful Western or Roman Churches are in Europe or in Latin America, but not all. Even though I like the Byzantine style, I still think beauty is in the eye in the beholder.



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« Reply #41 on: December 07, 2009, 09:39:47 PM »

What happened to the Romans around the time of Constantine?  Did Christianity introduce a steady decline in art throughout the empire?  Did the Byzantines take a too literal view of "not being of the world"?  Beautiful sculptures and classical architecture were replaced with abstract 2 dimensional representations of saints, and boxy domed churches.

Stagnation?  Syncretism into the Eastern culture which stays away from beautiful art?

K

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« Reply #42 on: December 07, 2009, 09:55:18 PM »

I don't think it's a competition. I love and adore the beauty in the two-dimensional iconography of Orthodoxy, but also love the humanistic beauty and play of light in the works of Caravaggio.

Do I want Caravaggio to paint an Orthodox Temple? No. It goes against the theology of the Church. However, this does not mean I can't appreciate it from a purely aesthetic point of view.



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« Reply #43 on: December 08, 2009, 12:15:59 PM »

I quite agree with Fr Anastasios and genesisone, the use of the term "writing icons" is a pet peeve of mine. While those who promote this term argue quite sincerely that this term helps to distinguish iconography from conventional religious art, they are mistaken.

The term "writing an icon" is at best a mistranslation, at worst an affectation. It is perfectly acceptable, and grammatically more correct, to say an icon is painted. The Greek roots graphe and graphia means either write or paint in all forms of Greek language, ancient and modern; the Slavic pisat' also has this dual meaning. This duality is even preserved in English: Do we not use the term graphic when we wish to describe something in great detail, as in visual, pictorial terms?

Wrong.  The expression "writing an icon" is correct because iconographers are writing the Gospel just in different medium. It is the Gospel for the unlettered. The translation is deliberate, not mistranslated and is no mere affectation.
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« Reply #44 on: December 08, 2009, 12:21:49 PM »

I quite agree with Fr Anastasios and genesisone, the use of the term "writing icons" is a pet peeve of mine. While those who promote this term argue quite sincerely that this term helps to distinguish iconography from conventional religious art, they are mistaken.

The term "writing an icon" is at best a mistranslation, at worst an affectation. It is perfectly acceptable, and grammatically more correct, to say an icon is painted. The Greek roots graphe and graphia means either write or paint in all forms of Greek language, ancient and modern; the Slavic pisat' also has this dual meaning. This duality is even preserved in English: Do we not use the term graphic when we wish to describe something in great detail, as in visual, pictorial terms?

Wrong.  The expression "writing an icon" is correct because iconographers are writing the Gospel just in different medium. It is the Gospel for the unlettered. The translation is deliberate, not mistranslated and is no mere affectation.

Wrong.  Jesus told his Apostles to "preach" the Gospel, not write it down.  It's merely come down to us that the "Gospels" are written.  Originally, they were spoken.  Should we not then say that icons are "spoken"?

Besides, "writing...in different medium", in this case, is called painting, in English.

By way of comparison, what are the words in Arabic, Coptic, and Ethiopian for the production on an icon?



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