I’m sitting on a bench surrounded by vibrant European paintings. It’s quiet and peaceful in the room with an occasional museum guest meandering about. I like it here. I’m a member of this museum so I come here often, sometimes to see new exhibits and other times just to visit the ancient antiquities along with the European paintings and sculpture that have become like old friends.
Not far from where I’m sitting hangs a 17th century Italian oil panting by Guido Reni of St. James the Greater, the Apostle of Jesus and brother of St. John. I look at the face of St. James, a working man who poured every drop of energy into serving Christ, his Master. The tireless one looks tired, physically exhausted. Where does he look for strength? I can see the answer in his eyes, peering up undistracted beyond the confines of the frame, past this temporal earth, into heaven itself, where his heart feel at home. As he looks upward, the light descends from above to shine on his face, glowing with a soft divine radiance. In his eyes I see expectation, faith, and hope. His Master sees him from above and hears his prayer.
This painting teaches me how to live, to dedicate my whole life to Christ, embodying the Faith in the world and, though living in the world, keeping my eyes focused through prayer on the One who looks down upon me from heaven. It reminds me to maintain an awareness of the heavenly reality present around me as I live every day in a distracting, constraining world.
The painting of St. James the Greater is good art. It reflects Beauty, teaches Truth, points us to the ideal of human life, and inspires us to achieve that ideal. Before I came to this room to sit and write, I walked by many other works that communicate the beauty of divinity, humanity, and the creation. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen a lot of pieces prominently displayed that are devoid of beauty, empty. If they communicate anything, their message proves uninspiring, even depressing and fatalistic. Much of Western art has declined to the point of irrelevance and heresy.
The Western world’s art has become irrelevant because of the heresy pervasive in our culture. By heresy I mean lies about God, mistaken notions about humanity, and false ideas about reality. Our culture does not know the true God, our Creator, the source of Beauty and Truth. When we do not know God we lose our knowledge of Truth and Beauty. Since we have rejected the source of Truth, we don’t believe in Truth anymore, only individual, personal truths. Artists who deny Truth do not inspire us to pursue Truth, nor the One who reveals all Truth.
Our spiritual ignorance has caused us to reject Beauty in favor of ugliness because we see the world as full of corruption and pain, having lost the hope of wholeness and Beauty. Since we don’t believe in Beauty as an ideal the artist doesn’t inspire us through art to pursue Beauty. We are left to wallow in the ugliness of the world without reaching out to the One who is pure Beauty, who has endowed the creation with beauty, and who heals and restores the beauty of humanity. We don’t pursue what we don’t believe in, what we have let go. How can the Western tradition of art be saved? Return to the Creator, the source of all Truth, Beauty, Peace, Love, Honor, Justice, Virtue, and every other heavenly ideal.
Another favorite painting of mine is a portrait of a woman who represents Truth. Except for a thin, translucent veil, she is innocently nude, the naked Truth, unembellished and unadorned. In her pure hand she holds a peach with a single leaf, the heart and the tongue, which keeps and speaks the Truth. She is beautiful. I’m sorry that more people don’t recognize her, appreciate her, love her, know her, and seek her. If we did, we would see her reflection in more pieces hanging on gallery walls.
The most spiritual art in the world is the iconography of the Orthodox Christian Church. Iconographers actually consider icon painting as more a form of prayer than a form of art. Icons are central to our way of life, a way of worship and prayer. Unlike the Western art of our culture, which has changed dramatically down through the ages and often portrays the artist’s personal views, the Orthodox iconography of the East has remained consistent, communicating what the whole Orthodox Church has believed and will always believe. Iconography must maintain consistency from generation to generation because it reveals the Truth preserved and lived in the Orthodox Christian way of life. An icon painted today looks remarkable like those painted in the early Church. As the Holy Scripture has been accurately transcribed from ancient times until today, Orthodox iconography has also maintained the theology of the Church, which is why we say that icons are “written,” not painted. As the Holy Scripture is a verbal icon, the image of Truth in the form of words, Orthodox Christian icons are the visual equivalents of the Holy Scripture. They reveal God Himself with Truth, Beauty, Peace, Wisdom, Holiness, and other divine ideals.
I’m comforted by the preservation of the ideals within the sacred images of the Orthodox Church, but I’m discouraged at what is happening to the contemporary cultural art produced in the Western world, including America. Iconography produced within the Orthodox Church and Western art forms are very different kinds of art. The value of iconography is firmly established. Western art that recognizes God and reflects Truth and Beauty can also have great value for us all, but our secular society seems lost, disoriented, cynical, and in despair. I hope that in finding the true God, found in the holy icons, Western artists will find inspiration themselves that will inspire the rest of us and point us toward God Himself with all the good things that find their origin in Him.
Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (The painting, Laurel Branch, by Bouguereau is in the public domain.)
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