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MEDIEVAL-RELIGION  October 1997

MEDIEVAL-RELIGION October 1997

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Subject:

Re: FEAST 18 October

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Date:

Sun, 26 Oct 1997 01:09:21 -0500 (EST)

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In a message dated 97-10-25 23:29:53 EDT, you write:

> I checked Legenda aurea & found no mention of Luke as a painter.
>  
>  tmi
>  
L.A. also has no mention, in its bestiary, of the pelican as a symbol for
Christ, and I'm thinking the bird may originally have been a symbol for the
Psalmist (who was thought to have foreseen  the coming of Christ). If so, a
bird that  was originally regarded as an indirect reference (to Christ) was
at some point condensed to a direct reference.

On  Luke, the unusally interesting idea that are being submitted may be
leading to more questions than answers.

(A) In the NT, is Luke (God's) "beloved physician" (who heals souls?), or is
he a straightforward practitioner of medicine? or is he both?

(B) What's the basis for the idea that he might have been an artist?

The only other named artist I can think of in the Bible is Aaron, who makes
the golden calf, but also becomes the high priest of Israel.  Especially
because of the stricture against graven images, the golden calf episode might
create a need to answer the question of whether being an artist is an evil
occupation.  

Maybe the question is answered to an extent in the lengthy descriptions of
the adornments of the tabernacle, presumably made by anonymous artists.  If
so, this is fairly consistent with a kind of moral relativism I find running
through the OT. The text includes many little reminders that doves, wine, or
anything else, are neither inherently good nor inherently bad in themselves.
They can be good in some contexts and bad in others--perhaps according to
their closeness to God at that particular moment.  So art can be used for bad
purposes--golden calves and graven images--but also for good purposes--the
adornments of the tabernacle.

It does seem odd that the question much later reemerges in a major way,
though more in medieval and early Renaissance art than in the Bible.  

Consider that Christ said he brought a new order, and that the old laws were
no longer in effect.   Certainly we know the obvious applications.  That it
was no longer mandatory (though it might be permissible?) for Christians to
circumcise or keep kosher households.  But what about the law against graven
images, about making pictorial representations of God?  Did Christ intend to
cancel that law, too, or was this a special law in a class by itself that he
did not intend to cancel?

I don't believe the Church ever spoke on the question, and there are many
signs in art that artists were confused for centuries. I don't see any clear
pattern, as if each artist tried to puzzle the matter out for himself.
 Images of Christ were made from an early date, perhaps on the logic that the
OT does not forbid making images of Christ (and in fact never mentions Christ
at all).  But images of the Father were an issue. Some artists paint
anthropomorphic images of God the Father. Others have various work-arounds
and subsitutes. Verrocchio's Baptism is a late example among many paintings
that have little hands reaching down from the sky.  I assume God's hands were
thought a less impermissible image than his face. 

Among other devices, a ray of light (as a "symbol for God") eliminated the
need to provide an  anthropomorphic representation. A Romanesque enamel at
the Met portrays God and Christ as mirror images of one another.  The artist
may have reasoned that if an image of Christ is permissible, it might be
permissible to portray God as if he looked exactly like Christ (but perhaps
it might be impermissible to portray God in any other manner).   In Piero
della Francesca's Baptism, a dove floats above Christ's head. But a tree
hides the portion of the sky, above the dove, where we might otherwise
 expect to see the face of the Father.

If any single event laid these concerns to rest, I think it may have been
Michelangelo's paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  His God is so famous
(and so massive)  that Christian artist thereafter seem to show no reluctance
at making images of the Father. I sometimes think, though, that Michelangelo
may have been misunderstood.  The wind is a pervasive image on the ceiling,
where so many things seem to be windblown. Wind is as effective a "symbol for
God" as a light ray. Several Biblical passages, at least one of which I feel
certain Michelangelo consulted, turn on God and the wind. 

So I feel we may be asked to compare the wind (as a "symbol for God") with
Michelangelo's  anthropomorophic representation of God as an old man with a
white beard.  The question of which one is "really" God is rhetorical on two
levels. Neither is really God, because each is an image in a painting. In a
more profound sense, God is neither the wind nor a humanoid figure because we
simply cannot imagine what God is  like. Our human imaginations are too
limited. We make images that we are able to understand--a light ray, a
mannikin, or whatever. I believe Saint Augustine talks about how people of
different levels of understanding envision God in different ways.

So far as I know, no Michelangelo specialist presents the wind (as a "symbol
for God") and the anthropomorphic portrayal (of God) as items we may be asked
to compare and contrast. But I've seen a similar juxtaposition in other
paintings, notably on the outer panels of Bosch's Garden of Delights
triptych. And it may be consistent with Michelangelo's piety.

In any case, the question hovers for centuries about whether to make
anthjropomorphic images of God, and what the images really "meant." The
images weren't actually God, and one certainly didn't want to call them idols
either.  I don't think we'll recover documents that speak to these issues.
 The struggle may have gone on largely in the minds of artists, who had to
decide whether to portray the Father in anthropomorphic form or,
alternatively, as a light ray, as hands reaching down from the sky, or by
some other workaround. 

The lack of clear regional or national patterns on how this was handled
suggests to me that maybe artists didn't discuss this much even with one
another, but handled the question  as a matter of conscience.  

Against this background, I wonder if it means something special to decide or
conjecture that Luke might have been an artist. Interesting, again, that he
was the only Gentile Evangelist. Maybe the three Jewish Evangelists seemed
less suited for that occupation, because of the stricture against making
images of God.

I also notice (correct me if I'm wrong) that the icons attributed to Luke all
seem to have the Holy Family as their subject, as in van der Weyden's Saint
Luke Painting the Virgin. This isn't consistent with the studio practice of
an actual artist, who might be asked to paint other subjects, such as saints.
 Is there some medieval assumption here that the highest purpose of art is to
paint Jesus and Mary, and therefore Luke, the Evangelist-artist, would not
have been interested in other subjects?  I could see this as part of the
Christian impulse to distance the faith from Judaism, where the godhead was
the thing one certainly did <not> portray in paintings.

In any case, I think we may need to fit the art historical background into
the picture somewhere, and possibly the identifying of Luke as an artist may
have included some kind of response to this background.  

BTW, it's almost a cliche that one of the most important uses of art, for
ancient peoples, was "for religious purposes."  This tends to blur over an
important proviso. Several early peoples objected to making images of their
deities, or of the central figure in their faith.  The OT stricture is the
most famous, and is carried over into Islam with added intricacies.  But the
early Romans made no images of their gods and goddesses, and picked up the
practice from other peoples. In the earliest Buddhist art, we see the lotus
throne of the Buddha, but the throne is empty.  Portraying the Buddha
actually seated on the throne seems to be a later development.

pat sloane
 .  



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