An Orthodox sisterhood that ministered to several hospitals in Minsk founded the Saint Elizabeth Convent in A.D. 1999. The nuns eventually established an iconography studio and school—a venture that both serves the practical financial needs of the monastery and provides an additional ministry by which the nuns and lay workers may share the beauty and grace of the Lord.
As Fr. Z. says, brick by brick. Christendom is slowly being rebuilt in the Orthodox lands that Communism ravaged. Thanks be to God!
As a follow-up to “Christian Kitsch,” I would like to share Jane Scharl’s “The Gospels according to Thomas Kinkade and Jean-Jacques Rousseau” from the Intercollegiate Review. Scharl argues that there is a spiritual background behind shallow Christmas art, which she describes as the most that a secular world can provide:
Rousseau’s sublimation is the best we can hope for from secular traditions. Secular Christmas music, even the best, exemplifies this attempt to sublimate experienced feelings—of loneliness (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), nostalgia (“White Christmas”), or love (“Let It Snow”)—beyond their context in ordinary life and elevate them to the level of the sublime. A sublime experience is a universal experience, one that has meaning outside of itself that both clarifies and validates it. This is the purest impulse of secular Christmas: to elevate our experiences to the level of the universal, and in so doing, to create a myth of Christmas to validate the feelings that punctuate our lives, even if just for one day.
We all hold an ideal of secular Christmas in our imaginations, even though for most of us it has never happened: cottages covered in snow, lanes fretted with sleigh tracks, children laughing, clear voices singing in a village square lit by lamps. Countless sugar cookies made by a smiling family while a perfect tree gleams in the corner and orphans smile at the feet of Santa Claus. It’s the Gospel according to Thomas Kinkade. But in this picture, the light illumines only itself, reflecting endlessly. It doesn’t illumine—or transform—the things of the world.
Scharl contrasts Kinkade’s work with that of Rembrandt to make her point. Pitting Kinkade against the Dutch master strikes me as a bit unfair, but I found her essay insightful.
I found a cheeky but thoughtful musing by Paul Griffiths on Christian kitsch in Duke’s Divinity Magazine, “A Defense of Christian Kitsch.” Griffiths argues that kitsch is the bread and butter of pious art for Christianity, “a religion of peasants and proles.” Therefore, he states, Christians should hesitate to look down on the gospel according to Thomas Kinkade.
I am not sure what to think. Griffiths is correct that most Christians have been from the unwashed masses; the good news is for all people, plumbers and MOMA curators alike, and there are always more of the former than the latter. However, I hesitate to agree with him—not (principally) because I am an insufferable snob whose stomach twists when I see sappy religious pictures and Jesus nightlights—but rather because art for the masses appears to have different characteristics in different regimes. In our contemporary democratic culture, mass tastes and consumption largely dictate what the entire society appreciates. Yes, we have art critics in the New York Times, and elite opinion trickles down (yes, yes, that cerulean speech in The Devil Wears Prada). Yet, our society’s master class appears generally content to fill the trough according to the swine’s appetite. In more hierarchical societies, the elite largely determines the aesthetics of the lower classes. Maybe, I just do not know enough about peasant art in ages past, but pre-modern religious art does not strike me as kitsch. Some of it crude, perhaps, but not kitsch (compare the paintings in the catacombs to the papal commissions of the Italian Renaissance—a striking difference in quality, but neither is kitsch). Consider traditional Christian iconography, the stained glass windows of Western Christendom, or the mosaics of antiquity. I do not even know whether we should call the governing force of such art “elite” taste—rather, artisans tended to work with canonical styles (hence, being determined by tradition, not any group’s fancy). The architectural progress of sacred buildings clearly involved the engineering elite, commissioned by the secular and ecclesiastical elite, but entire towns were involved in cathedrals’ construction and adornment. Would you call the windows of Chartres kitschy? Would the Most Reverend Maurice de Sully have found the aesthetic tastes in sacred art of his poor parents so different from that of the royal court? Griffiths even mentions the icons of Andrei Rublev, but surely this example provides a stumbling block for his position. Russian peasants and proles have always adored the transcendent beauty of Rublev’s iconography.
Christian kitsch may simply be yet another symptom of our decadent age.
That said, who doesn’t like angels and kittens, together, lightly hovering over little girls in Easter dresses having afternoon tea with their teddy bears in a peaceful meadow (with birds, chipmunks, and lots of unidentifiable flora in the background)?
I recently learnt of the Beuronese School, which was a nineteenth century attempt to reorient, literally and figuratively, Western liturgical art. You may read of it at the New Liturgical Movement. The linked article has some lovely photographs, as well. The style is what results, I suppose, when one expresses piety with Belle Époque aesthetic sensibilities.
What a century!
I have a theory, probably garnered somewhere now unknown to me, that human societies experience creative explosions in moments of civilizational crisis wherein cultures or ages collide. There are many counterexamples, but the high points of human civilization seem to occur at such moments. Take fifth and fourth century ancient Greece, the Hellenistic period throughout the Near East, the chaos at the end of the Roman Republic, the transition to Christianity in the empire, the first centuries of Mohammedan expansion, the High Middle Ages, the swan song of the Eastern Empire, the Renaissance, or the consequent ages up until the world wars. I do not know if one may see a similar pattern in South and East Asia, though such seems true of Mughal India. The 1800’s—that tumultuous century of revolution and reaction—gave the world remarkable literature, music, architecture, urban planning, and painting. Please forgive an indulgence in Hegelianism, but it seems that the nineteenth century resulted from a somewhat hostile dialectic between tradition and modernity that nevertheless created an extraordinary age. Perhaps, though, we should not be surprised that the coming together of opposites begets life.
Like everyone else, I am surprised by today’s news from Rome. May Benedict XVI’s successor steer the Roman ship well.
Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk issued the reaction of the Russian Church.
Somewhat tangential to the news of the day, I offer a short B.B.C. story: “Meet Orthodox Vatican’s official court painter.” (The story’s title should be “Meet the Vatican’s Orthodox Official Court Painter,” but the B.B.C. evidently no longer hires literate Anglophones.)
We live in interesting times.
On this election day, I would rather be abroad. At least I can write about something other than politics.
Iconography is theology in color, as they say. It seems that iconography plays a more significant role in the Orthodox Christian life than religious art in the West, though perhaps medieval church architecture provided such a role for Western Christians centuries ago. If you ever go to an Orthodox parish, you might experience stimuli overload with all of the iconography; the story of God’s economy is illustrated on every wall, from creation to the martyrs of the Soviet monster. I cannot explain here the richness of the iconographic tradition, but there are many electronic materials online, such as the Orthodox Christian Information Center.
My favorite icon is the Vladimir Icon of the Theotokos:
Aaron and I had the wonderful opportunity to venerate the icon in Moscow. The Soviets confiscated it but, in their shame, did not destroy it. The Tretyakov Gallery is the current custodian of the icon, but the Russian Church demanded it back. The museum struck a compromise with the Church; there is a church next to the museum, Saint Nicholas in Tolmachi, and the museum owns the church, in which the icon is kept. Therefore, the faithful can venerate the icon during liturgical worship, while the museum’s visitors can see one of the most remarkable icons ever written.