Thursday, August 23, 2012

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Christ & Iconography

Christ & Iconography

This brief paper will humbly try to explain the importance icons have in the life of the Church. I will also explain the emergence of motion pictures as a modern form of iconography.

Art comes to us in many forms:  a painting, a sculpture or statue, stained glass and music.  Throughout history, the Catholic Church and members of it have been leaders in creating and caring for icons. Long before the printing press, icons were used to enhance worship and to lead us closer to the heart of God. Icons are an aid to draw people to God by teaching those who could not read the written word and to help people learn about salvation history.
From a Catholic standpoint icons affect the liturgy. Without the beauty of icons there would be no liturgy. The Catholic liturgy is so deep in a theological and symbolic sense that every motion and every sound heard has a direct meaning to the sacrifice. Over the past 40-50 some years there has been a slow and systematic destruction of all that is beautiful within our sacred liturgy and sacred art heritage. It is no coincidence that Protestants have historically placed icons and architecture in a secondary role. Throughout history icons have always been the subjects of many discussions. Are icons really relevant?
From Plato until the 21st century it is clear, weather people realize it or not, icons play an invaluable role in the salvation of souls. In his symposium Plato says

“ We never Love the ugly, we always love the beautiful, because unconsciously what we love is immortality” (Plato’s symposium)

 We love beauty, because we want to create, we long and hope for the divine attributes within us and want to express this to the fullest extent. This is why you can get lost in a painting by looking deep into the detail and becoming absorbed in the paint that has been dry for over half a millennium. Contrast what Plato says with a more recent view from Monsignor M.Francis Mannion about the importance of architecture in regards to the Liturgy. The Monsignor writes
 “ Architecture plays a sacramental role, in Catholic worship: the place of worship is not a temple or a “meeting house”, but sacramental building. To say that liturgical architecture is sacramental is to say that architecture participates in the sacramental order of the Church. Architecture enters into the action of the liturgy.”
(Msgr.M Francis Mannion, Church Art & Architecture Dec.1999)

The liturgy as sacred art invokes sense memory. It is not only visual but also all the senses are used to assist in making the reality present.

Iconoclasm can be carried out by the faithful of different religions. But more often it is sectarian in nature and iconoclasm runs high within the same religion, for example: Christianity.
Iconoclasts believed that icons could not represent both the divine and the human natures of the Messiah at the same time. Because an icon, which depicted Jesus as purely physical, would be Nestorianism, which showed Him as both human and divine, would not be able to do so without confusing the two natures into one mixed nature, which was Monophysitism, therefore all icons were considered heretical. The iconoclasts also appealed to the prohibitions of graven images in the Mosaic Law. No detailed writings with iconoclast arguments have survived because, well the iconoclasts lost and we know who writes history.
Iconoclasm proper condemned the making of any lifeless image (e.g. painting or statue) that was intended to represent Jesus or one of the saints. The solemn definition of the Iconoclastic Movement held in 754 declared:
"Supported by the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers, we declare unanimously, in the name of the Holy Trinity, that there shall be rejected and removed and cursed one of the Christian Church every likeness which is made out of any material and colour whatever by the evil art of painters.... If anyone ventures to represent the divine image of the Word after the Incarnation with material colour, let him be anathema!” [1]
For iconoclasts, the only real religious image must be an exact likeness of the prototype of the same substance, which they considered impossible, iconoclasts viewed wood and paint as empty of spirit and life. Thus for iconoclasts the only true "icon" of Jesus was the Eucharist. Any true image of Jesus must be able to represent both his divine nature (which is impossible because it cannot be seen nor encompassed) and his human nature (which is possible). But by making an icon of Jesus, one is separating his human and divine natures.
 Saint John of Damascus declared that he did not venerate matter, "but rather the creator of matter." However he also declared, "But I also venerate the matter through which salvation came to me, as if filled with divine energy and grace."[2] He includes in this latter category the ink in which the gospels were written as well as the paint of images, the wood of the Cross, and the body and blood of Jesus.

Icons are important because beauty is important. Beauty is a value that is as important as truth and goodness and through the last few generations it has been lost.
Our modern world only praises art that is made to break moral taboos. Art tries to be harsh and grab our attention, to make us gasp out of shock rather than to gasp out of wonder.  Beauty is attacked today from ugliness and utility in everyday life. Utility has replaced beauty in our buildings, form now follows function. American Architect Louis Sullivan wanted people to stop thinking about the way a building looks and instead think about what it does.[3]

Emmanuel Kant argued for the importance of beauty: “the experience of beauty comes when we put our interests to one side, and look on things not to use them for our purposes but simply to absorb them” [4]
If we are to treat the material as unimportant, the incarnation becomes diminished. Icons help educate and fuel the faith of the faithful.


There is a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. This also stands true for Icons. How are people today being fed their sacred art? With the abundance in the availability of scripture and high literacy rates, do Icons still have a use to educate and inform us? The main art form of our time is the art and craft of moving pictures. Are we able to view photographs and motion picture films as modern day Icons? The medium of the current generation is new media and there are no signs of it slowing down. Photography, Motion Picture Films, Web TV all have their place within this context. One Professor notes
“ The nature of digital technology enables limitless copying without degradation in quality or fidelity to the original” (Fredrick Mark Gedicks, St.John’s Law Review, Vol 79,March.29, 2004)

Within the last ten years the Internet has become an invaluable tool, so that you no longer have to travel for months or spend an incredible amount of money in order to enjoy art. This can become a danger as well. We definitely do not want to turn into a culture of armchair or laptop museum enthusiasts. Computers allow those who would generally be unable or uninterested to view art, to experience sacred art in a new and personal way.
An expert on Imagery Alison Griffiths makes her case for where you view art as being just as important as the artwork itself. She writes,

 “ What the medieval icon, panoramic painting, and motion picture share in common, on a phenomenological level at least, is their power to transform abstract ideas and representation of the world into a decipherable visual language that can be decoded by the spectator within an enclosed space.” (Alison Griffiths, Medieval Imaginary of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Cinema Journal 46,No2, Winter 2007, University of Texas Press)

A filmmaker has a more powerful influence than an artist from a century ago, whereas a single painting can restrict you to the vision element. A filmmaker may add sounds and effects to tell you how an event actually took place and what it sounded like. This is evident in our media obsessed culture where virtually everyone relies on a news report or supermarket tabloid and takes it as gospel. However a nerve was struck with a feature film released in 2004. The film was “The Passion of the Christ” and everyone from the Pope to street corner theologians had an opinion. Australian Chris Eipper stated,
“Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ fused materiality and poetics, materiality and spirituality, as never before” (Chris Eipper, Moving Statues and Moving Images, Australian Journal of Anthropology, page 259, Latrobe University)

Like the boost of Baroque after the reformation, the Passion is equally aided by the cultural element of today. Society wants nothing to do with suffering. The Baroque style is emotional and exudes grandeur, which is why Baroque art dominates in the Passion. Chris Eipper makes his case by stating that you cannot be on the fence with this film, he said
            “The Passion of the Christ should be seen as the most sustained and unrelenting representation of penitential suffering ever depicted, an objective correlative designed to make indifference impossible.” (Ibid, p.260)

For it definitely achieved the desired effect by drawing people closer to Christ and those who did not know Christ began to ask questions. The incarnation aids us in this process. For we cannot make the Godhead visible. God comes to us in human flesh; he has revealed himself to us as the Word. Jesus Christ, the 2nd person in the Most Holy Trinity. This allows us to re-present Jesus, His life and teaching to others. Media outlets of all kinds were scrambling to decipher the popularity of the film. One reporter noted
            “For believers the movie is not a docu-drama, but a religious experience”
(David Gates, Newsweek, Mar.8 2004)

In the opening sequence of the film (approx 10 min mark) we have become witnesses to the moving image of one of Christendom’s most famous pieces of work. Caravaggio’s “The Betrayal of Christ”. Caravaggio uses illuminating light and dark shadows in a dramatic fashion to expose the reality of the world behind his paintings. In the original painting Caravaggio is placed at the scene with a lantern. The powerful irony of being betrayed with a kiss by someone that has a “personal relationship” with Christ reinforces the fact that obedience is important above all.

Two more works of art that I found familiar in the film were from artist Peter Paul Reuben’s (1577 – 1640) Mainly “The Raising of the Cross”, and  “The Disposition from the Cross” In the film it is a very powerful sequence around the 60:38:00 mark that only last 40 secs but seems like an eternity. The executioners turn the cross over and walk over the back of the beams to strike the backs of the spikes. This scene is such an odd disturbing sight that you actually feel like you are watching something that you shouldn’t be. For me this scene was key in getting lost in the movie, as I felt utterly helpless in everyway while watching my Lord be desecrated like that. Reuben’s painting does not turn the cross over completely but it still gives the effect of a total exposition of Christ and His complete obedience and surrender to the will of the Father.
In Reuben’s Disposition from the cross, the artist chose to keep the shroud that is carrying the body of Our Lord as pure white. In the film it is completely blood soaked.  Also the painting shows follower’s of Christ bringing the body down, where as Gibson chose to use Roman soldier’s and Nicodeamus as the ones who bring him down from the cross.

A single icon can be discussed for a millennium. With every new generation, young artists are inspired and propelled to create their own works of art. The filmmakers of “The Passion of the Christ” have created a cinematic portal through which the average moviegoer can experience some of the greatest artistic imagery in the history of Western culture. The power of transcendence is what an icon is suppose to do, and when we can transcend the seat in the movie theatre the artist has done their job. Icons will continue to be an important part of the faith in our ever increasingly mundane culture. The young people of today are blessed with new tools in which they can continue the tradition of icons in a new and evangelizing way.
Clayton Richard Long


“The Image and The Word: Confrontations in Judaism, Christianity and Islam”, Ed. Joseph Gutmann, Scholars Press, 1977

“Trojan Horse in the City of God”, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Franciscan Herald Press, 1967

“Compendium of Theology”, Thomas Aquinas, Translated Richard J. Regan, Oxford Press, 2009
“Theology for Beginners”, Frank Sheed, Servant Books, 1958, Ch 13 “The Visible Church”

Articles & Journal reviews as noted.

[1] “The Image and the Word”, Scholar’s Press, 1997, p.67
[2] Finney, Paul. “Antecedents of Byzantine Iconoclasm”, Scholars Press Montana, p.29
[3] BBC documentary “Rodger Scruton on Beauty”
[4] Kant, Emmanuel “The critic of Judgment”, 1764,

Christopher Dawson talks Europe & Christians


Christianity and European Culture by Christopher Dawson.

Europe and the Christian way of life appear to be dissolving right before our eyes early in the 21st century. When I was growing up I knew that I lived in a Christian context and that the “bad” part of the world were non- Christians. This included all countries east of the iron curtain. Christopher Dawson is a well-respected historian who shows us how unique Christian Europe is and how it was carved out from the very beginning from people such as Aristotle and Aquinas. Europe is not just like-minded individuals who all have the same idea of how their democratic countries should be run.

Dawson argues that the Christianity changed two things in Europe: morals and the perception of time, before this, morals were based on reciprocity, if you do harm to me I will do harm to you and if you are to suffer and I did not cause it, then it is your problem that you suffer.
In the bible through Jesus we are taught that we must be responsible for the suffering of others (Good Samaritan) if we start to think about being responsible for the suffering of others, and that we can change a life, then we can make changes in the world (37). In the past pagans believed in a circular system where no one could change anything.
Dawson insists that the rise of the Popes also gave credence to the west (139). The Gregorian reform pushed for the need of science and law to organize society, from the 11th cent on, human nature and human reason has been taught to be important for salvation, if we use our reason using science and law.
Saint Thomas Aquinas used science and the natural law to achieve his writings and was the main contributor for examples of men using their reason, in this regard freedom of thought gradually became normal practice in Europe, and European’s realized that humanity needed to look everywhere for knowledge and the potential for new discoveries was infinite. This came to a peak during the enlightenment movement, where disbelief became integral to western civilization, as did the values and attitudes associated with scientific research (71).

The driving mantra behind the values and attitudes of the modern dilemma is intellectual honesty, a sense of exactness, objective proof and a hunger for knowledge and learning. The absolute rejection of authority is the key to this understanding, as was demonstrated in the Catholic Church by Fr. Luther (207), and in fact from the very beginning in Genesis when Adam and Eve took fruit from the tree of knowledge. Dawson suggests that secularism is a direct result of the achievement of modernity to encompass individuals to belong to a single humanity inhabiting the same planet. The liberal democracy seems to be the result. The word democracy echoes everywhere, including Arab countries this past year. However democracy in the truest sense would allow myself to vote on every aspect of government. When in fact I vote for someone to do the voting for me.
“ It would be a grave error, on the other hand, to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since, by virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in his power[1]

The world has an increasing appetite for material things and views charity strictly as an organization and not true love. The popes have always taught that it is never lawful or wise to dissociate morality from the affairs of practical life.

“Justice exalteth a nation: but sin maketh nations miserable.”[2]

Being a Christian is more important (and dangerous) than ever. We should not separate our lives from the world; we must be in the world as full Christians. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke Jesus commands us to put God first.

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His justice, and all these things should be added unto you.”[3]

We can never separate any aspect of our lives from the Social Reign of Christ the King, that is originally why the feast day was proclaimed, so that the faithful will not forget that God must always be put first. For this to happen we need to pursue our own sanctification and that of our family members. Catholics must continue to form their intellect regarding Catholic teaching, not merely social justice pandering. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre agrees,

“What are we to do in the face of this impious explosion of hatred for God and contempt for all that is most sacred in the human person? First, we must avenge the honor of God by leading a more intensely Christian life. Next, we must make reparation for the sins of the godless by a life of penance. Finally, we must strive with all our might to establish the Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ in civil society and in family life”[4]

In the last six months the world has been faced with some strange stories that the average person just seems to ignore or shrug off. Basically the governments of Greece and Italy have had new leaders imposed on their countries from leaders of other countries! Merkal and her co-conspirators are not fooling me. I can see what kind of democracy is going on. It would be interesting to hear what Dawson would have to say about the current state of Europe.

“Catholicism is the law of life, the life of the intelligence, the solution of all problems. Catholicism is the truth, and everything that departs from it one iota, is disorder, deception, and error.” [5]  

Clayton Richard Long

[1] Pope Pius IX “Quas Primas”,
[2] Proverbs 14:34
[3] Saint Matthew 6:33
[4] Pastoral Letters of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Angelus Press, p.9
[5] Juan Donoso Cortes, “El Liberalismo”  (1851)