Friday, 15 November 2013

Of Glass and Gold III: Comparisons and Conclusions

James Waller
This is the third part of a paper given by James Waller at the Carmelite Centre on Tuesday evening, the 12th of November 2013. James’s paper contrasts his discovery of the Trinity Sergius Monastery in Russia, a spiritual centre of Orthodoxy, with Metz Cathedral in France, a remarkable example of Western Catholic spirituality. All images in this presentation come from the camera of James Waller. A bibliography, with links, is at the end of this Part.
We might say that speculative theology is forged by a deep and ongoing tug-of-war, between reason and logic on the one hand, and faith and devotion on the other. Equally we might say that dogmatic theology places one in the hand of the other. The great Orthodox monastic, Fr. Seraphim Rose once wrote that in order to embrace Russian Orthodoxy he “had to crucify his mind.” In surrendering his not inconsiderable powers of reason to the apophatic way of the Eastern Church, Rose acquired what no amount of thought could: simplicity. This is not to say that he stopped thinking: his surrender, rather, channelled his reasoning powers into the tight rivers of Orthodox dogma, revealing with fresh insight its accepted truths, and refuting, with erudition, all that opposed them.

Put very simply, the great split between the Eastern and Western churches was due to the tug-of-war of speculative theology. The double focus of this war was the icon and the formulation of the Trinity. The Eastern Church rejected reason as a tool of theology and embraced instead the apophatic way, the dark way of silent surrender. In doing so it also embraced the icon as a way of “knowing without knowing”, as a mysterious expression of the invisible. It found abhorrent any attempt to reason out the mystery of the Holy Trinity and paved the way for an icon, such as Rublev’s, to, one day, be forged.

The West, on the other hand, continued with the tug-of-war. In doing so it split itself at the seams; it rejected eastern mysticism and iconography and gave birth to a rational philosophy that would ultimately empty itself of God. But that process also gave birth to the Gothic; to awesome symphonies of stained-glass, to immersive prayers of colour, that have continued to be renewed in languages of contemporary vitality and relevance.

In contrast to the icon, the Trinity, in the Neoplatonic Christian West, was manifested as a mathematical formula, for as Von Simson states,

As the icon is thought to partake of the sacred reality it represents, so, according to Augustinian aesthetics, the musical consonances in visual proportions created by man partake of a sacred concord that transcends them.

This sacred concord, expressed most perfectly in Gothic architecture, stained-glass and the music of Bach, is a force of abstraction that is anathema to the Eastern Christian world. Paul Evdokimov’s analysis of abstraction in The Art of The Icon reveals the depth of this anathema. Writing about modern abstraction, he states:

For the great founders of abstract art, the desire to penetrate behind the veil of the real world is obviously “theosophical” and occult in nature. Paul Klee wrote that, “at the higher levels, there is the mysterious.” Is this the new era of the knowledge of God? Perhaps, but if it is, it is a knowledge which knows nothing of the incarnate God. It is a knowledge of the ideal and abstract deity which sets aside the divine Subject himself.

What we might take from this is that the Eastern view is much tighter than the Western; the identification with the image, the icon, is so strong that any other form of spiritual cognizance, even within the Christian framework, amounts to the denial of the Incarnation. Orthodoxy is not an inclusive culture, but a strictly exclusive one. Leonid Ouspensky writes:

The other heresy is to surrender to failure from the start, a rejection of the image. In art, it is iconoclasm, the denial of the immanence of the divinity, that is, of the Incarnation itself.

The contrast with the Western Church could not be greater. The cathedrals of Metz and Rheims reveal a far looser, more inclusive visual culture, one that is able to re-ignite itself with both fresh figurative, and abstract, vision. But is this vision activated into prayer?

Troitski Sobor, in contrast to Metz and Rheims, reveals a deeply active, yet closed visual tradition. It is, I would say, more alive with actual prayer, indeed richly so. The pilgrimage there never ceases and the spiritual atmosphere is such that photography is unthinkable.

Almost the opposite may be said of the French cathedrals. Cultural tourists clearly outnumber spiritual pilgrims, and the clicks of cameras largely put to bed the thought of lighting candles. This is not to say that cultural tourists do not experience awe and wonder, but whether that translates into prayer, or simply remains on the level of sensation, is another story.

For myself, I came really, on an artistic pilgrimage, longing to see the glass that raised Marc Chagall’s luminous vision to its most fully realized expression. And I found that the glass is just one aspect of the vibrational whole, just as the icon is within the iconostasis. It is pertinent to note that Chagall felt the need to remind us (and perhaps himself) that the cathedral is not a gallery, but a place of contemplation. These words of his are quoted from a guide to his stained-glass windows in Rheims:

The Cathedral is not a museum, there should be no mistake about this. I believe in love. One doesn’t do a thing if one does not love. This is a bouquet, a mystical bouquet, my gift to Rheims.

The conditions for such a statement, wonderful as it is, do not occur in the Russian Orthodox Church. Clearly, what constitutes sacred art – unlike theology - remains speculative in the West whereas in the East, the visual program – and any internal aesthetic debate - is closed.
In closing this particular discussion we should note that Western cathedrals such as St Etienne are more the exception than the rule. Even so, the Western Church has proven itself to be permeable to modern and contemporary art culture. The speculative and eclectic nature of its embrace could be seen as a healthy and fluid renovation of its interior aesthetic life. It could also, however, be seen as evidence of a theological system that has largely lost its aesthetic moorings.

When confronted with one modern, jarring, abstract window in Notre-Dame de Rheims, located in the apse to the right of the Chagall, I couldn’t but wonder at the conceptual framework that had enabled it to be commissioned. If I had seen this work in a gallery, as a painting, I would not have lingered. Its cold abstract design seems, now, to confirm Evdokimov’s analysis of abstraction as a subconscious  game of planes and colours “that do not transcend anything.”

We might conclude from this that if abstract expression lacks either an ideal ratio, on the one hand, or true feeling on the other, it becomes extremely problematic. An icon, on the other hand, even if rendered poorly, remains a liturgical language that can be read. The challenge for the Orthodox world is to maintain the vitality of a language that in many ways has already peaked. For the image is also prone to decoration through unfeeling repetition.

Fig. 1. Abstract window, Rheims.


Cowen, 2005: Painton Cowen, The Rose Window: Splendour and Symbol, Thames and Hudson, London 2005.

Evdokimov, 1972: Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon: Theology of Beauty, trans. Fr. Steven Bigham, Oakwood Publications, California 1972.

Florensky, 2000: Pavel Florensky, Iconostasis, trans. Donald Sheehan and Olga Andrejev, Saint Vladimir Seminary Press, New York 2000.

Guerlin, 2005: Jean-Marie Guerlin, Marc Chagall’s Stained-Glass Windows, trans. Claire Jardillier, Editions la Goelette, Saint-Ouen 2005.

Hiegel: Philippe Hiegel, The Stained-Glass Windows of Metz Cathedral, trans. Ray Beaumont-Craggs, Editions Oeuvre de la Cathedrale de Metz.

Kenworthy, 2010: Scott M. Kenworthy, The Heart of Russia: Trinity Sergius, Monasticism and Society after 1825, Oxford University Press, New York 2010.

Ouspensky, 1992: Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon: Vol. II, trans. Anthony Gythiel, Saint Vladimir Seminary Press, New York 1992.

Simson, 1988: Otto Von Simson, The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order, Princeton, New York 1988.

Yazykova, 2010: Irina Yazykova, Hidden and Triumphant: The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography, trans. Paul Grenier, Paraclete Press, Massachusetts 2010.

On-Line References

Wikipedia: Andrei Rublev (film).

Russiapedia: Andrei Rublev (iconographer).

Ria, Trinity Iconostasis

Wikipedia: Metz.

Wikipedia: Metz Cathedral.

No comments:

Post a comment