Friday, April 11, 2008

Heretical?


Give me a break.

I am quite sure that the artist who painted this really WAS part of a cult and this was created to be subliminal advertising for his California-Christ cult (snark).

Sorry. I'm not buying it. While Archbishop Lazar raises some very familiar points about the differences between Orthodox iconography and western religious art, it is comparing apples and mini-vans. The point of such comparison is quite moot. Art and iconography are two completely different things, created for and serving two completely different purposes (I think any Orthodox icongrapher would agree).

This might be far-fetched, but could it be that Richard Hook was simply a western Christian? A Protestant, perhaps? If so, then he, like me until recently, might have spent a lifetime knowing nothing about icons or iconography at all. Christ's divinity was made most manifest to us less in his physical appearance than in his words and actions. This portrait does not deny the Savior's divinity, it merely portrays his humanity. Let's not read more into it than there is.

Could it be possible that Mr. Hook painted a portrait of the human Jesus to help us remember that he walked here on earth as our brother once upon a time? Or perhaps to help us see Christ in all people that we meet - even the very plain and ordinary looking people? Could he have painted the portrait for no other reasons than out of love for Jesus Christ? (how sinister!)

Come. On. Nobody's asking anyone to venerate this painting. It's art, not an icon. Orthodox Christians who call it "the anti-Christ" or "heretical" have simply gone a bit overboard here. We'd do well to stick to commenting on the genre which is part of our tradition. Art is subjective - icons are not.

I don't happen to care (stylistically) much for this portrait of Christ which hung in our living room all during my childhood. In fact, I never have, though I have a strange sort of attachment to it. It was there in our home all those years, reminding me that Christ was there, too.

That is not unimportant.

15 comments:

Kate said...

I first encountered this image when I was in confirmation class, and I liked it because it was the first time I was presented with an image of Christ as someone I could know. In this image, Jesus looked friendly and kind. Not until then had I ever been able to "connect" to the idea that Jesus might be someone who could know me...and love me...just as I am.

That comforting image was ruined for me in college. I had hung my well-worn paper copy of this face on my bulletin board in my dorm room, and my roommate--junior year--commented on it, and said something like, "So, you like that macho Jesus picture, eh?"

I was sunk. This picture that had allowed me to feel that Jesus loved me personally was revealed to me as nothing more than a superficial emotional manipulation, with a sexual undertone. I took the picture down and threw it away. It was ruined for me forever.

They say that most people develop some kind of special affinity for one or other of the three persons of the trinity. Some people "relate" better to God the Holy Spirit, for example. I have never again felt an affinity for Jesus. From then on it was only "God"...God the Father perhaps.

I don't know who ruined that image of Jesus for me more, my roommate or Richard Hook.

-C said...

Interesting reflection. I think my mom was drawn to this image for exactly the reasons you outlined in the early portion of this comment.

Hard to say who ruined it for you - only you can decide that or whether it makes any difference.

But seeing the original post did not ruin it for me.

There is a vast difference between opinion and truth. The truth is that none of these critics really knows what the artist's intent or motivation was.

And that should have been the end of it.

Mairs said...

While I appreciate the lively discussion my blog post seems to have generated, I would like to offer up the original reference before the argument gets lost out of context across the internet. The book which described this picture as heretical was Archbishop Lazar Puhalo's book entitled The Icon as Scripture. My original post can be found here:

http://thoughtsfromtheothersideofthemountain.blogspot.com/2008/04/ikon-as-scripture-some-random-thoughts.html

and I highly recommend anyone interested in this topic read the book! He explains his conclusions much better than I ever could. In my mind, it's a little hard to argue against hearsay.

-C said...

"...I highly recommend anyone interested in this topic read the book!"

It depends upon which topic you are talking about: Western religious art or Orthodox iconography. They are two separate topics, which is why I posted this response.

Richard Hook didn't write an icon. He painted a picture. No heresy there.

It is hard to argue against hearsay, but maybe just as important not to argue for it.

JamesoftheNorthwest said...

-c...

This topic seems to have hit a nerve. I find the concept intriguing and you may be right that to some degree there is a contextual issue at play here. If you will, allowing the two sides to talk past one another.

For those of us who are Orthodox we have a rather extensive history and theology with regard to pictorial depictions of Christ. More than that, they are seen as far more than just pictures. In fact, for centuries the use of ANY images of Christ was hotly disputed as you likely know and this is precisely why the Orthodox are very careful with their presentation, the upkeep of associated traditions, and their liturgical function. The iconoclasts were not completely wrong in calling attention to certain potential and even real abuses - not the least of which was creating false perceptions. To a degree, creating images of Jesus can be dangerous...at least from an Orthodox perspective.

As the title of the original post AND the book referenced suggest ("The Icon as Scripture") the Orthodox do believe the icon (or image if you like) is indeed like Scripture in color. And this is the context of the Archbishop's argument.

So, keeping this in mind, if someone were to author a stylized and dramatic novel-like account of the life of Jesus and left all traces of his Divinity out of the story, would you consider the story as at least potentially heretical if not outright so?

I don't think anyone is judging the painter or those who might admire the work as heretics at all. At least I should hope this is not the case.

As a side, if I may interject a bit of levity: I don't think anyone could take an Orthodox Icon of Christ that expresses so well His humanity and divinity and "ruin" it for someone by labeling it a "macho" or "hunky" Jesus. The image, like Scripture, should speak more than be spoken to...if that makes sense.

Grace said...

-C:
What an excellent post! While I can see a lot of merits in the book as reviewed in mairs (particularly like the info about the perspective in icons), I'm with you that in the case of this image, the punishment doesn't seem to fit the crime.

As for the fact that these are images of Jesus Christ that simply aren't iconic ... I don't know. What planet are we supposed to be living on? I'm Orthodox, but that doesn't mean I think that no one should be allowed to have religious pictures that aren't icons. For goodness' sake, we're in a culture that produces movies like "The Last Temptation of Christ" and books like "The DaVinci Code." Can we pick our battles a little more? Getting the heavy artillery out to fight a friendly 80's-looking painting of Christ is like getting on a full suit of armor to attack a hot fudge sundae (to quote something Vonnegut said).

-C said...

James - Hi - I've been a lurker on your blog for a couple of years and enjoy it a great deal.

As briefly as possible, let me respond to a couple of things you mentioned:

... you may be right that to some degree there is a contextual issue at play here. If you will, allowing the two sides to talk past one another.

>>>Actually, the problem is ALL about context. The contexts are not at all the same.

For those of us who are Orthodox we have a rather extensive history and theology with regard to pictorial depictions of Christ. More than that, they are seen as far more than just pictures. In fact, for centuries the use of ANY images of Christ was hotly disputed as you likely know and this is precisely why the Orthodox are very careful with their presentation, the upkeep of associated traditions, and their liturgical function. The iconoclasts were not completely wrong in calling attention to certain potential and even real abuses - not the least of which was creating false perceptions. To a degree, creating images of Jesus can be dangerous...at least from an Orthodox perspective.

>>>But we aren't talking about Orthodoxy or Orthodox Christians or what we think or what we believe. We are talking about a piece of western Christian religious art.

As the title of the original post AND the book referenced suggest ("The Icon as Scripture") the Orthodox do believe the icon (or image if you like) is indeed like Scripture in color. And this is the context of the Archbishop's argument.

>>> And the Archbishop might have done well to limit his discussion to icons - and not involve western Christian art, which are not meant to be icons. He and the two bloggers who addressed this recently did it in a comparative way. They cannot be compared because they are not at all the same thing.

So, keeping this in mind, if someone were to author a stylized and dramatic novel-like account of the life of Jesus and left all traces of his Divinity out of the story, would you consider the story as at least potentially heretical if not outright so?

>>> Do you mean like The DaVinci Code, for example? It's literature, not truth. Not billed or written to depict the truth. No problem. (I thought the book was a fun read).

-C said...

Amen, Grace.

Thanks for stopping by.

Grace said...

Quick follow-up: I just happened to be checking out other blogs, and hit Handmaid Mary-Leah's. I wonder what the book's author would make of THIS IMAGE of St. Tikhon.

But now I'm just being a trouble-maker. ;-)

-C said...

Not sure what he would say about it except that it doesn't appear to be an icon either.

But it looks as if the artist could be Russian. If the artist is an Orthodox Christian, I think it might at least be a better jumping-off point for him than the work of Richard Hook.

Iconographers are most definitely artists - but few artists are iconographers. The work of artists who are not iconographers cannot be fairly be judged (and this is what we are doing here) if there is not a level field. Then it's just criticism for the sake of criticizing, which is never a good thing to do.

thehandmaid said...

Just came across this and know I am a bit late to the party...

Do I really have to point out that there is a difference between iconography and art, especially religious genre art as it is produced in historically Orthodox countries like Russia?


What the Orthodox will hang in their Churches and what is allowed in the church hall are two very different things.

The culture which produces the art and artist is very important to the discussion.

The western Jesus of the post is a product of western Protestant culture and is different (from Orthodox genre & religious art) only in that it produces a western view of Christ.

This portrait would be suitable to hang in a Protestant church only because of the subject - Christ - not because it has any liturgical value or speaks to theological truth.

Isaiah tells us that "...He had no form or glory, and we saw Him; and He had no form or beauty. But in comparison to all men, His form was lacking in honor" (Isaiah 53:2-3).

How does "hunky Jesus" compare to what Holy Scripture teaches?

That even the "bible-believing" miss this is indicative of what they are lacking: the fullness of the faith and its teachings. I do not question their love of the Lord, only the prism through which they view Him.

p.s. The image of St Tikhon by Natalia Kurguzova is a rather patriotic view of the martyr, I daresay the Archbishop Lazar would approve the appropriate use of this painting.

-C said...

Yes, if I remember correctly, I think I echoed your first sentiments in my comments here. Iconography and western religious art are not at all the same thing...a comparison is really a moot point.

I have very little to say about the image of St. Tikhon you mention. It depends upon what the "appropriate use" you mention is. If it is art for art's sake, fine. But patriotism (nationalism/ethnic pride) really has no place in the church.

thehandmaid said...

Which is why we don't have national flags in church too.
Since we are speaking past each other and agreeing on most everything its time to stop.

-C said...

For the record, lots of Protestant churches don't have flags in church either.

(also for the record, early photos of my own Orthodox parish reflect an American flag in the church, in the front near the iconostasis. Thankfully it has long since been removed.)

It's not about us vs. them.

Go ahead and stop if you like.

-C said...

And before we get too carried away with accusing all of those Protestants of having flags in their churches, check this link if it works. St. Mary's Orthodox Cathedral, Minneapolis (OCA).

http://jvarian.smugmug.com/gallery/4776649_G4UBh#283731563_vpJV6

Look closely - just over the head of the last person in procession - this is from Palm Sunday 2008.