Study Notes: 20 MAR 2015
Study notes on liturgics
“… Pictures as windows is a Western tradition. Think of a typical painting of a landscape hanging on a wall–it is like a window to the outdoors. By the way, picture frames also symbolize window frames. In pictures of people, the spectator is “spying” on the person who is depicted. This corresponds with the Roman Catholic devotional practice of imagining various scenes from the Bible and “observing” all of the details through imagination–“spying” on Christ or the saints. (See my paper on mental imagery in Catholicism and Orthodoxy–it should still be somewhere online.) Perspective in Western paintings is forward: two parallel lines come to a point in the scene of the painting.
In Eastern iconography, the perspective is reversed: two parallel lines come to a point “in front” of the icon, right where a person who is looking at the icon would be standing, and come apart in the icon itself. Done properly, parallel lines come together in the middle of the chest of the person looking at the icon. Thus, it is the exact opposite of the Western concept: instead of me “spying” on Christ by looking into heaven through a window, He is looking into my heart from heaven. An icon is a window, but it is not a window into heaven; rather, it is a window from heaven into our world.
Another feature which can be observed in Eastern iconography is saints “coming out” of the icon. Think of an icon which is recessed into the board with the border “sticking out” around the edge. The saint depicted will always have a hand or part of the halo coming out of the image and onto the border, or Saint George’s spear and the hoof of his horse come out onto the border–as if the saints are in the process of coming out of the icon into our world.
in Western art, the human is the subject (the viewer) and the painting is the object. In Eastern iconography, the Lord or a saint is the subject (the viewer) and the human is the object. It is not so much that we are looking at them as it is that they are looking at us, they are the “cloud of witnesses.” This is also true of architecture. The Western spire “pokes” at heaven, tries to pierce it–it is as if the humans are trying to build a tower that can reach into the heavens. In Eastern architecture, the most ancient forms have a heavy low dome that looks like the sky (and is painted with stars on the ceiling). It is as if heaven lowered itself, came down to earth. The Russian “onion”-dome style symbolizes drops of oil dripping out of the sky. Oil, of course, is the symbol of the Holy Spirit, of anointing, of grace. In other words, the grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit comes down to us here on earth. Art, architecture, theology, worldview–we could go on and on, all of it is connected…”