Art and Icons: A Meditation on Vasari

In Lives of the Artists Giorgio Vasari, a student of Michelangelo, discusses the rebirth of art, from Cimabue and Giotto in the High Middle Ages to the accomplishments of his sixteenth century contemporaries. As with any new generation of creative individuals, Vasari pours scorn on those who preceded the Renaissance style. In particular, he singles out the Byzantine religious paintings which dominated Europe for centuries after the decline of Rome. Discussing the new realistic techniques in his biography of Giotto, Vasari says: “In this style of painting the unbroken outline was rejected, as well as staring eyes, feet on tiptoe, sharp hands, absence of shadow, and other Byzantine absurdities; these gave way to graceful heads and delicate colouring. Giotto, especially, posed his figures more attractively, started to show some animation in his heads, and by depicting his draperies in folds made them more realistic.” Giotto introduced foreshortening, but his most innovative practice was depicting faces that expressed hatred, love, anger and fear.

In terms of sheer skill there can be no doubt that the pioneering works of the Renaissance were a marvelous development. Eastern European painting had become stagnant in the same way that art forms had fossilized in the hieratic cultures of China and Egypt. Eventually Western Christendom recovered from the blows of barbarism. Encouraged by a competitive spirit, which was both fostered and carefully guided by high religious and philosophical ideals, it eventually surpassed the much admired works of Greco-Roman civilization.

That said, earlier artistic styles are often vindicated with the passage of time. It is my opinion that Byzantine religious art has its own redeeming qualities. Its very abstraction lends itself to contemplation. With the idealized Christ or saints we are less distracted by the features copied from a realistic model. The icon figure is devoid of any “sensuality” (which has its legitimate place in art) and is completely idealized in a positive manner. It was easy for Vasari to dismiss such things as primitive and uncouth. For example, he was apt to overlook the intentional distortion of the face which emphasized the forehead and eyes, thus drawing attention to the figures’ spiritualized qualities.

Where some see only rigidity in the traditional icon, others see grace and an ethereal dignity. In the images of Mary – such as the Enthroned Madonna and Child at the National Gallery of Art – there is also a calm but compelling tenderness. Yet Byzantine imagery is free of that mawkish sentimentality that has become the standard in Western religious art since the late Baroque. It is this mass-produced stereotype which, ironically, has overshadowed both Renaissance and pre-Renaissance masterpieces of spiritual expression. Vasari’s  brilliant analysis notwithstanding, I am glad to see that new generations of admirers and artists are helping to perpetuate the Byzantine style.

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