Monday, May 18, 2009

The Modern Icon

Last week I shared a rather whimsical (if ultimately serious) painting by James C. Christensen. But this week I would like to consider some of his artwork of a different style.

Among the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church as well as the Orthodox, icons have long been a major part of devotional life. In the West, there is not such a fully formed concept of icons, artistically or theologically, but there are certainly parallels.

To what extent do icons have a place in modern devotion? And what should they look like? Some would suggest that there is no need to update icons at all; the ancient form and content of this religious art should remain the same as it always has. Others have experimented with a mixture of the old and new, with regards to both style and subject. Still others would claim that icons have no place in the modern world.

But Christensen's artwork poses a clear challenge to this third position. Though neither Catholic nor Orthodox, Christensen has incorporated elements of traditional devotional artwork into some of his own works. 'Saint with White Sleeves' (left) is done in the style of an obscure Flemish painter known as The Master of the Enoch Altarpiece. Though she does not represent any particular saint, Christensen has clearly concluded that earlier styles speak to the modern age. I thought her clothing particularly interesting, being of an amorphous style that could belong to any time from the 16th century to the American frontier or the present day.

'Cecelia' (right) is named after the artist's granddaughter, and not necessarily after the patron saint of music. Indeed, theological rectitude would require that a saint not be depicted with the wings of an angel. Nevertheless, the religious influence is clear, drawing on the sort of Neo-Byzantine style popular a century ago, and seen, for example, in the National Shrine and St. Matthew's Cathedral. (I am no art historian, but it seems Christensen is drawing on the same kind of medieval interests that drove the Pre-Raphaelistes and elements of the Arts & Craft Movement in this era. But I digress.) As has been asked of these earlier revivalists, has Christensen simply appropriated religious images for secular art? Or is he trying to make a comment about the function of artwork generally, or about the nature of the spiritual life? Put another way: what is the connection between form and matter? Does use of religious styles necessarily imply religious content and commentary? Can you innovate upon a religious style without raising theological questions?

'Faith, Hope and Charity' (below) returns to more of an Americana style, but retains clear religious elements: halos, wings, and the names of the three figures in Greek.

I would suggest that Christensen's work points to the ongoing resonance of religious themes and styles, in the midst of an often secular age; man's heart longs for the God Who created him and calls to him each day.

For those intrigued by The Master of the Enoch Altarpiece mentioned above, I thought you might find this video of Christensen interesting. I just love this kind of background information!

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