Friday, December 23, 2016

The West and Christ

Some things to ponder as Christmas Day draws near.  For the art work mentioned by Father John Strickland in his post below, please visit his blog (linked at the end).

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Art says a great deal about a culture’s values. The art of the renaissance was an expression of the new humanistic values of a western Christendom beginning to liberate itself from the pessimism of the middle ages. Its goal was to affirm and celebrate the human condition in a world that was increasingly seen as bereft of paradise. The late medieval world of western Christendom was a bereaving world, and the optimistic humanism of the renaissance offered consolation. A visual expression of this was the image that came to be known as the Madonna. Tenderly holding her child in her arms, Mary came to represent as much a statement about the value of motherhood and parental devotion as a proclamation of the incarnation of God.

This shift is visible particularly in the image of Jesus. Increasingly, he came to be represented as a charming babe, or “baby.” The fact that the modern English diminutive of babe became the standard term for this image is significant. The personhood of Christ came to express predominantly worldly and even sentimental values.

Beginning with the renaissance biographer Vasari, western views of art history long held that the depiction of Jesus in Byzantine and early medieval iconography represented a deficiency in technical skill and human experience.

The man-like “little adult” of the Hodegetria icon was seen as the best an overly ascetical society like early Christendom could do. And after all, since most icons were painted by monks with little or no knowledge of women and children, how could they be expected to capture the appearance of an infant naturalistically?

But that of course had not been the point of traditional Christian iconography of Mary and Jesus. Proclaiming the incarnation, it had insisted that the real humanity of Christ was joined without confusion to his divinity, and that this uniting of the world with heaven was the great hope, and optimism, of the Gospel.

Now, in the renaissance, a marked change occurred. Christ’s divinity, while scrupulously upheld in Roman Catholic and later Protestant doctrine, was slowly erased in art to favor his humanity. As renaissance painters such as Leonardo da Vinci (d. 1519) applied the principles of humanism against the perceived pessimism of the late medieval west, they became increasingly lost in a celebration of the natural world.

Into this environment the sentimentalized “Baby Jesus” was born. Many painters even went so far as to abandon iconographical decorum by depicting Mary’s child nursing at the breast.

Leonardo was one of them, and his beautiful Litta Madonna is one of the most famous of renaissance paintings. The painting (it is not an icon in the liturgical sense) shows a sleepy-eyed Jesus staring blankly at the viewer. He is completely naked, and powerless. He has no halo. Nor does his mother, who gazes downward serenely in a moment of maternal adoration that is oblivious to any future suffering and need for victory over the brokenness of world.

From this, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the secularized image of Baby Jesus became almost purely an object of sentiment, worthy of mass reproduction, commercialization, and even banal games of child-rearing.


Holy Ælfred the Great, King of England, South Patron, pray for us sinners at the Souð!

Anathema to the Union!

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