Author Topic: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?  (Read 26194 times)

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Offline Kaste

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Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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

Offline Alpo

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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!

Offline LBK

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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.
« Last Edit: December 06, 2009, 03:59:50 PM by LBK »
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Offline Anastasios

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Offline ialmisry

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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?
« Last Edit: December 06, 2009, 04:24:03 PM by ialmisry »
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Offline Riddikulus

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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
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Offline GabrieltheCelt

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Offline Super Apostolic Bros.

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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.

Offline pensateomnia

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Offline Kaste

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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
« Last Edit: December 06, 2009, 06:47:42 PM by Kaste »

Offline LBK

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Offline Alveus Lacuna

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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.

Offline HandmaidenofGod

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Offline Alveus Lacuna

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #15 on: December 06, 2009, 08:34:13 PM »
I forgot to mention that the title of this thread is hilarious!  :D

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Offline Fr. George

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Offline Fr. George

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #18 on: December 06, 2009, 10:04:52 PM »
Why is the Thread title so "Troll-y"? ;)
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Offline Alveus Lacuna

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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.

Offline Anastasios

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Offline Fr. George

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Offline Vlad

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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.

Offline ms.hoorah

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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

Offline ialmisry

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Offline HandmaidenofGod

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Offline GabrieltheCelt

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #26 on: December 07, 2009, 01:05:48 AM »
Why is the Thread title so "Troll-y"? ;)

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.  :)
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Offline Alveus Lacuna

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #27 on: December 07, 2009, 01:07:05 AM »
...designed to create confusion and division.

That sounds familiar...

Offline FormerReformer

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Offline Alveus Lacuna

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #30 on: December 07, 2009, 03:01:15 AM »
I could totally see myself venerating that icon, Alveus  ::)

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #31 on: December 07, 2009, 03:03:00 AM »
I was unaware that Cable had been canonized.
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Offline Super Apostolic Bros.

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #34 on: December 07, 2009, 01:06:18 PM »
Why ugly?   ??? it's so noble:






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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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?

K
I think byazantine art is beautiful.
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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #36 on: December 07, 2009, 01:14:12 PM »



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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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" :)
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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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" :)
Fr Anastasios, I'm glad someone finally agrees with me ;D. 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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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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« Last Edit: December 07, 2009, 09:05:37 PM by ChristusDominus »
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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« 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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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #45 on: December 08, 2009, 12:39:54 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

hmm... almost seems like a post meant to be bait...

Orthodox iconography has always appeared 2 dimensional and "innacurate" because it's not about realism. It's all about symbolism and manifesting what isn't seen. The buildings that appear in the background of the icons are not there to be a "background" or some representation of a certain place. Most of the time, buildings in the background indicate that the event portrayed took place indoors.

The architecture was also not meant to be like post-schism western architecture... It was designed around the liturgy, and like the icons, was all meant to be symbolic. Orthodox Churches (and early Christian churches) weren't built up because that isn't the point of the Church. The domes and ceilings were closer to the human being showing that there is a connection between us and heaven, it isn't some distant, unreachable thing. The Churches weren't intended to dwarf people, but rather were intended to be scaled to them.
They were were square and boxy not because of a lack of architectural aesthetic, but rather because the square (and circle) best fits the services of the Church, also, it is also symbolic of something bigger. (also hence all the domes)

So don't just assume that because the icons were 2d and had "poor" perspective, and just because the buildings were boxy, that doesn't mean that the Roman Empire fell back in art and architecture. It meant something much more than just visual aesthetic.

And also, all of this is known, not just in Orthodoxy, but it is also taught in schools of art and architecture. So don't assume we are just making excuses, this is well-known in Art and Architecture...
« Last Edit: December 08, 2009, 12:40:39 PM by 88Devin12 »

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #46 on: December 08, 2009, 12:43:28 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.

I'm going to start saying that the Gospels are painted then. Since they are using words to paint pictures. This is the Orthodox way. Orthodoxy trumps English grammar and vocabulary, since the English language is not a holy language sanctified by the Orthodox Church. We must use neologisms and reworkings of this debased vernacular tongue to approximate these sublime Greek concepts, since the English language is so poor and unorthodox.
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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #47 on: December 08, 2009, 12:50:55 PM »
There is nothing mysterious about painting Icons that it needs to be called "writing". The Greek word for writing and painting were simply the same, and if you think about it, it makes sense. When you "write" the letter "a" you are simply producing a graphic which represents a sound. When you paint, you produce a graphic which represents an object. When I type on my keyboard I am using ASCII graphics which can either be letters representing phonemes or symbols (eg "@", "$") with no accompanying phoneme.
The Koine word for "I paint" is the same word for "I write" and is "graphw".
« Last Edit: December 08, 2009, 12:51:44 PM by ozgeorge »
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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #48 on: December 08, 2009, 01:26:40 PM »
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.

I must ask: is this a philological debate that is only relevant/pertinent in English?  IOW, are the words for "write" and "paint" the same in the other Ancient languages of the Church (Slavonic, Coptic, Greek, Arabic, Ethiopian, Georgian, etc.)?

If the debate is only pertinent in English, then we must treat the subject in a new way, just as treatment of the subject of Love in Greek (agape, filia, storgi, eros, philanthropia) versus English (love) must be different.

If, however, these other languages have words for "paint" but have not used them, then why?  My suspicion is that this is a new debate (i.e. the other languages have only had "write").
« Last Edit: December 08, 2009, 01:27:08 PM by Fr. George »
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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #49 on: December 08, 2009, 01:29:09 PM »
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.

I must ask: is this a philological debate that is only relevant/pertinent in English?  IOW, are the words for "write" and "paint" the same in the other Ancient languages of the Church (Slavonic, Coptic, Greek, Arabic, Ethiopian, Georgian, etc.)?

If the debate is only pertinent in English, then we must treat the subject in a new way, just as treatment of the subject of Love in Greek (agape, filia, storgi, eros, philanthropia) versus English (love) must be different.

If, however, these other languages have words for "paint" but have not used them, then why?  My suspicion is that this is a new debate (i.e. the other languages have only had "write").

I agree and think you are correct.  This is a new debate.
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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #50 on: December 09, 2009, 12:22:30 AM »
I do want to clarify I do not say or believe "icons" are ugly.  Icon's, since they are deeply religious, are in a different category, and so are more likely to be beautiful by the very fact they cause us to think of heavenly things not of this world.  But Byzantine art in general (freezes, characters on jewelry boxes, wall paintings of saints, engravings on tombs etc...) lacks 3 dimensional natural human form and yes "ugly" is too strong a word.  Perhaps "intentionally rudimentary" should be used instead. 

How could a society steeped in Greek and Roman classicism simply give it all up and no longer paint or sculpt like they used to?  The Church must have lobbied for this anti-realism.  I reject the idea that for a thousand years no one wanted to make naturalistic sculptures or bascilicas that mirror Greco-Roman architecture--the heritage of their ancestors.  It seems there must have been some new state-sponsored religious philosophy that restricted art and architecture into the abstract and "boxy".  None of the ruins dating after Christianity became the state religion resemble ancient Rome or Greece, and I dare say, they look "inferior".  Even Justinian's Hagia Sophia, as large as it is, still fits into the pattern of boxy and domed.  Why the seeminly strict restrictions on art and architecture?

Christians used to imploy classical art style to convey Bible stories up until around the 4th century, so there is nothing inherently wrong with this naturalistic, classical style...yet it does seem when the Church was given full power it expunged this.  Same goes for the West with its Midieval childlike paintings in books.  Though at least they can claim Old Rome's culture was lost after it was sacked.  Byzantines can't.  So what happened?

Seems to me there are 3 possibilities:

1) The early Church (East and West) was filled with a lot of "iconoclastic" characters who were threatened by naturalistic classical art.
2) The Eastern mind is truly different and its artistic taste is simply inherently different than the West's. So when Constantine moved the Empire east, it jettisoned the Western culture and adopted the Eastern/Oriental.
3) Christianity, if followed to the tee, really does frown upon naturalistic art, and the Byzantines came up with a sort of compromise: abstract art.

K

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #51 on: December 09, 2009, 12:26:26 AM »
I'm still confused what the problem with something being domed is? In fact, it was my understanding that Hagia Sophia was a marvel at the time for the sheer size of its dome.  Greek buildings, as I understand it, were not domed because they did not have the technical know-how to do it. We can thank the Romans for domes.
« Last Edit: December 09, 2009, 12:30:25 AM by Fr. Anastasios »
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Offline Vladik

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #52 on: December 09, 2009, 12:30:58 AM »

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #53 on: December 09, 2009, 12:52:17 AM »
Do you have some examples of pre-4th century naturalist art? I'm not disputing whether it exists because I don't know; I'd just be interested in seeing it.

You should read Fr Pavel Florensky's "Iconostasis", which goes deeply into the theology of Orthodox art.

But basically, according to him, it is not meant to look realistic and have the "fleshy" tendencies of  Renaissance art because it is not meant to depict the physical appearance of people. It is supposed to give us a window to the spiritual reality of the saint or scene depicted, and their glorified bodies. Obviously we can't depict those things in fact, so we have this Byzantine style, which varies in levels of realism but are not meant to be realistic depictions.

Think of it this way (this is probably a poor and inadequate analogy). We have a 4 dimensional cube - a hypercube. We cannot see or imagine what a hypercube looks like, and even if we could, we could not recreate one. The best we can do is this:



That's a 2-dimensional image of a 3-dimensional projection of a 4-dimensional object. It's not at all what a hypercube actually looks like. But it does allow us to think about it.

That's what icons are meant to do - they allow us to connect with the saint and give us some feeling of the "otherness" of their spiritual state. They are not meant to be photorealistic pictures. If they were, we would be tempted to think about their fleshiness too much. The unreality of iconography detaches us from that way of thinking.

[edit]
As to architecture, I'm sure that's just as full of meaning as iconography, but I don't know much about that side of things.
« Last Edit: December 09, 2009, 12:56:36 AM by bogdan »

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #54 on: December 09, 2009, 01:00:03 AM »
Think of it this way (this is probably a poor and inadequate analogy).
Actually bogdan, I think 4th Dimensional projections in 3 dimensional space are actually a very good analogy for Icons. In the hypercube, all angles are right angles, but we cannot depict this because of our existence in only three dimensional space. Just as, if a three dimensional object such as a sphere were depicted in two dimensional space, it would only be able to be depicted as a circle.

Even Justinian's Hagia Sophia, as large as it is, still fits into the pattern of boxy and domed.
Like Fr. Anastasios, I don't understand the problem with a building being domed, it's actually a technological marvel. I'm also not sure what you mean by "boxy". When I think of "boxy", I think of things like this: http://www.downtownstadium.org/centerpointe3.jpg
I don't think of "boxy" as describing things like this: http://www.lessons-from-history.com/Images/Great%20Projects/Hagia-Sophia-Laengsschnitt.jpg
Perhaps if you explained what you subjectively mean by "boxy" and "domed" it would help.
« Last Edit: December 09, 2009, 01:01:04 AM by ozgeorge »
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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #55 on: December 09, 2009, 01:00:14 AM »
From what I've read I recall reading that the dome is like the firmament, and that each temple is like a mini-cosmos. The whole universe exists within the temple walls. 

An Orthodox temple does not reach to the sky in longing, trying desperately to reach the heavens.  It is complete and contained; it has everything that we need.  This reflects the reality that is the Church: delivered once, containing the fullness of salvation.
« Last Edit: December 09, 2009, 01:01:44 AM by Alveus Lacuna »

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #56 on: December 09, 2009, 06:51:44 AM »
Those paintings in the Sistine Chapel now those are really Ugly ..whatever and whoever there suppose to represent ,insults the Holy ones of God,
Depicts them almost naked, Fat, never having fasted ....The Vatican should replace them with some beautiful byzantine Icons...
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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #57 on: December 09, 2009, 07:46:52 AM »
Those paintings in the Sistine Chapel now those are really Ugly ..whatever and whoever there suppose to represent ,insults the Holy ones of God,
Depicts them almost naked, Fat, never having fasted ....The Vatican should replace them with some beautiful byzantine Icons...

I don't think the Sistine Chapel is ugly, I think its a masterpiece. Nor do I think the paintings of the Sistine Chapel "insult" the Holy Ones of God. Nor do I think they should be "replaced" with "Byzantine" (whatever that is) Icons. They are artworks which belong to the ages and part of the history of the Roman Catholic Church. To "replace" them would be no different in my opinion to the Taliban blowing up the ancient Buddhas of Bamyan. Why do we have to insult and destroy each others sacred art and iconography? I once had a brass Buddha which I used as a doorstop until a Buddhist visitor saw it and asked me how I would feel if she used a Crucifix as a doorstop. I asked her forgiveness for offending her and gave her the Buddha. I don't think we can evangelize anyone by insulting their beliefs.
« Last Edit: December 09, 2009, 07:48:06 AM by ozgeorge »
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Offline ialmisry

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #58 on: December 09, 2009, 09:17:20 AM »
I do want to clarify I do not say or believe "icons" are ugly.  Icon's, since they are deeply religious, are in a different category, and so are more likely to be beautiful by the very fact they cause us to think of heavenly things not of this world.  But Byzantine art in general (freezes, characters on jewelry boxes, wall paintings of saints, engravings on tombs etc...) lacks 3 dimensional natural human form and yes "ugly" is too strong a word.  Perhaps "intentionally rudimentary" should be used instead.  

How could a society steeped in Greek and Roman classicism simply give it all up and no longer paint or sculpt like they used to?  The Church must have lobbied for this anti-realism.  I reject the idea that for a thousand years no one wanted to make naturalistic sculptures or bascilicas that mirror Greco-Roman architecture--the heritage of their ancestors.  It seems there must have been some new state-sponsored religious philosophy that restricted art and architecture into the abstract and "boxy".  None of the ruins dating after Christianity became the state religion resemble ancient Rome or Greece, and I dare say, they look "inferior".  Even Justinian's Hagia Sophia, as large as it is, still fits into the pattern of boxy and domed.  Why the seeminly strict restrictions on art and architecture?

Christians used to imploy classical art style to convey Bible stories up until around the 4th century, so there is nothing inherently wrong with this naturalistic, classical style...yet it does seem when the Church was given full power it expunged this.  Same goes for the West with its Midieval childlike paintings in books.  Though at least they can claim Old Rome's culture was lost after it was sacked.  Byzantines can't.  So what happened?

Seems to me there are 3 possibilities:

1) The early Church (East and West) was filled with a lot of "iconoclastic" characters who were threatened by naturalistic classical art.
2) The Eastern mind is truly different and its artistic taste is simply inherently different than the West's. So when Constantine moved the Empire east, it jettisoned the Western culture and adopted the Eastern/Oriental.
3) Christianity, if followed to the tee, really does frown upon naturalistic art, and the Byzantines came up with a sort of compromise: abstract art.

K


Naturalist enough for you? It's from the Great Palace at Constantinople.
« Last Edit: December 09, 2009, 09:21:49 AM by ialmisry »
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Offline mike

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #59 on: December 09, 2009, 09:41:38 AM »
How could a society steeped in Greek and Roman classicism simply give it all up and no longer paint or sculpt like they used to?  The Church must have lobbied for this anti-realism.

I don't think icons are less realistic than these:



Or these:

less realistic than other antique sculptures.

I think that your accusations that Christian art destroyed the heritage of the antique art is not true. As we can see Christian art is similar to the lay art of that period.

Pictures taken from Polish and English wikipedia.

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Offline GiC

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #60 on: December 09, 2009, 01:47:23 PM »
I do want to clarify I do not say or believe "icons" are ugly.  Icon's, since they are deeply religious, are in a different category, and so are more likely to be beautiful by the very fact they cause us to think of heavenly things not of this world.  But Byzantine art in general (freezes, characters on jewelry boxes, wall paintings of saints, engravings on tombs etc...) lacks 3 dimensional natural human form and yes "ugly" is too strong a word.  Perhaps "intentionally rudimentary" should be used instead. 

How could a society steeped in Greek and Roman classicism simply give it all up and no longer paint or sculpt like they used to?  The Church must have lobbied for this anti-realism.  I reject the idea that for a thousand years no one wanted to make naturalistic sculptures or bascilicas that mirror Greco-Roman architecture--the heritage of their ancestors.  It seems there must have been some new state-sponsored religious philosophy that restricted art and architecture into the abstract and "boxy".  None of the ruins dating after Christianity became the state religion resemble ancient Rome or Greece, and I dare say, they look "inferior".  Even Justinian's Hagia Sophia, as large as it is, still fits into the pattern of boxy and domed.  Why the seeminly strict restrictions on art and architecture?

Christians used to imploy classical art style to convey Bible stories up until around the 4th century, so there is nothing inherently wrong with this naturalistic, classical style...yet it does seem when the Church was given full power it expunged this.  Same goes for the West with its Midieval childlike paintings in books.  Though at least they can claim Old Rome's culture was lost after it was sacked.  Byzantines can't.  So what happened?

Seems to me there are 3 possibilities:

1) The early Church (East and West) was filled with a lot of "iconoclastic" characters who were threatened by naturalistic classical art.
2) The Eastern mind is truly different and its artistic taste is simply inherently different than the West's. So when Constantine moved the Empire east, it jettisoned the Western culture and adopted the Eastern/Oriental.
3) Christianity, if followed to the tee, really does frown upon naturalistic art, and the Byzantines came up with a sort of compromise: abstract art.

K

Well, with everyone having been thoroughly offended, I should just sit back and enjoy the show...but I'll chime in with my opinion from the perspective of Art History, limited though that knowledge may be.

First of all, the ancient world did not have a fully developed theory or practice of perspective in 2-dimensional art. The concept of nearer object overlapping more distant objects were understood and the idea of more distant objects being smaller was introduced, but the concept of a vanishing point was neither fully developed nor really used. The surviving apex of Art in the ancient world is probably the Vergilius Vaticanus (circa 400 CE), a few images in it have parts of the image (such as beams in a building) moving towards a vanishing point creating the illusion of depth, but this is only in parts of the image, it is not universally applied; it was the work of skilled artisans not artists working with a developed understanding of their field. A fully developed theory of perspective would have to wait for a mathematical theory of optics and an understanding of the conic model of the observation of light; Donatello and Masaccio were really the first artists to make full use of perspective in art.

With that said, there was an obvious decline in the development of art during the Dark Ages, but as much as I'd love to blame it on the Christians (and I do believe they share some blame), I don't think it's that simplistic. The fall of the western Empire and the end of the Golden Age of Rome was probably more to blame; in fact, the political instability and diminishing resources in the Empire was probably also responsible for the rise of religious fundamentalism in the Empire. That most art from this era was religious simply reflected the fact that the Church (often with the purse of the State in hand) was one of the few organizations with the funding to commission such works. Where I do believe Christianity is to blame is in the persecution of Pagan nobles (one of whom was the person to commission the Vergilius Vaticanus) and Pagan schools, which were really the last vestiges of ancient culture and civilization in Europe until the Renaissance.

However, architecture is the one area where art (and engineering) advanced during the Dark Ages. The dome was a progression, not a regression, of engineering design, preferred by even the Ancient Romans over what is commonly viewed as more 'Classical' architecture for it's superior strength and ability to create larger buildings. While the scope of architectural projects was harmed by the cultural, political, and economic decline of Europe, the science actually progressed.

Offline Schultz

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Re: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?
« Reply #61 on: December 10, 2009, 02:59:21 PM »
Daniel Mitsui over @ The Lion & The Cardinal (one of my favorite blogs) just posted an article on the differences between realistic linear-perspective type art and the earlier medieval traditions.

I thought it germane to the discussion at hand.
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