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Author Topic: Why is Byzantine art so "ugly"?  (Read 10678 times) Average Rating: 0
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« 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...
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« 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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« 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".
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« 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").
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« 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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« 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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« 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.
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« Reply #52 on: December 09, 2009, 12:30:58 AM »

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« 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.
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« 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.
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« 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.
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« 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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« 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.
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« 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.
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« 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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« 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.
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« 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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