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The Dramatic Double Vision of the Catholic Imagination

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The debates of our ancient faith keep returning in surprising ways. The issue is not so much a return of the repressed, but the constitutive presence of the theological in our post-Christian midst.

According to Natalie Carnes, the recent trend of toppling Confederate statues has connections with the theological imagination(s) of the ancient Christian faith.[1] Her essay, “Breaking the Power of Monuments,” rewinds to the historical moment that produced the Byzantine iconographic conventions mentioned in my initial piece on the Catholic imagination.

Carnes’s explanation of the immense power of images to create social relations deserves an extended quotation:

The public monument had a definitive moment in Byzantium, where the ubiquitous images of the emperor witnessed the extent of his political power. Thanks to images, the emperor could be present even where he was absent. So closely was the presence of the emperor identified with his image that to honor the image was to honor the emperor himself. Early Christians like fourth-century bishop Basil of Caesarea used this image logic to explain Christ’s relationship to the Father. Christ is the image of the invisible God, he wrote, such that honoring Christ is honoring the Father; for him, Christ bears divine presence into the world. Later, this same structure of image/emperor and Christ/Father was invoked by Byzantine image-defender Theodore of Stoudios. He wrote that the honor given to icons of Christ passes through to Christ himself; Christ, for him, is present to his image.[2]

The role played by icons is one limited version of something John Pfordresher calls a “double vision” where, “Nothing is simply itself; everything has a second meaning [as an analogy of God].”[3] Therefore, as with the modernists, iconoclasm—in its Abrahamic, late Byzantine, Reformation, and present-day American incarnations is motivated by destroying images that channel action through worship toward an end perceived as either politically or religiously idolatrous.

Sometimes humankind cannot bear too much of the wrong kind of Divinity.

It is easy to forget that the iconic conventions Western Christians usually associate with Eastern Orthodoxy were the de facto baseline for Christian art in both the East and the West until roughly the 14th Century. Their persistence can be attributed, in part, to early Christian struggles to defend the Divinity of a crucified human savior against scoffing pagan opponents. The ferociousness of the polemics can be gleamed from the fact that one of the first depictions of the Crucifixion, the “Alexamenos Graffito,” was an anti-Christian engraving of a crucified donkey.[4] Given this context, it is understandable that it took about ten centuries for the crucifix to become a nearly universal staple in Western churches. The earliest of these incorporated elements recognizable iconic conventions.

This process eventually led to a clearer break when “Giotto changed the profession of painting from Greek back into Latin, and brought it up to date.”[5] Giotto’s innovation inaugurated an artistic movement away from the court symbolism and dispassionate depictions of Byzantine icons toward naturalistic depictions of flora, fauna, humans, and, most importantly, the humanity and suffering of Christ. Giotto, of course, did not work within a vacuum. The Middle Ages also produced Francis, Aquinas, Dante, a renewed interest in the ancient world, the rediscovery of Aristotle, increased trade with areas outside of Europe, scientific discoveries, Gothic architecture, popular Marian piety—all which contributed to the further development of the double-vision (analogy) whose definition Pfordresher further unfolds in this way:

This is naturally the case because all of creation is a form of divine writing in which God has inscribed “shadows, echoes . . . vestiges, representations” of himself and his intentions, as Bonaventure suggested. Everything is more than it appears to be. The material density of the world of Jesus’s imagination is matched by a parallel density in meaning . . . the whole of creation is full of divine meaning each one of his images is a doublet.[6]

It could potentially be argued that what we recognize as the Catholic imagination has its roots in the innovations of the Latin Middle Ages.

In fact, the definition of the Catholic imagination offered by poet Dana Gioia, almost perfectly aligns with the one above, even if it more sharply foregrounds the shadows and dramatic nature of Catholicism:

Catholic writers tend to see humanity struggling in a fallen world. They combine a longing for grace and redemption with a deep sense of human imperfection and sin. Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil. Nature is sacramental, shimmering with signs of sacred things. Indeed, all reality is mysteriously charged with the invisible presence of God. Catholics perceive suffering as redemptive, at least when borne in emulation of Christ’s passion and death.[7]

There is more of the human drama in what Gioia says, because he foregrounds the irresolvable Catholic tension between iconophilia and iconoclasm. For the Catholic imagination, the world is fallen but redeemable. It is not parked firmly in either heaven or hell.

This historical development also applies to artistic incarnations of the singular Incarnation. After all, the early Renaissance of Giotto and his followers was relatively quickly succeeded by the Renaissance proper, Mannerism, the Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassicism, Romanticism, etc. Therefore, there is also an additional drama in the very procession of Western religious forms. It something like the doubling up of the double vision through the continual historical process of discerning liturgical and artistic forms. Such historicism can be especially confusing for those who become too attached to one period and cannot fathom why sacral art and religiously-tinted literature would attach itself to new styles. Additionally, confusingly enough, it can also lead to a reappropriaton of older rites. For example, note the increasing interest in the Extraordinary Form, or, the rediscovery of the continued existence and applicability of Eastern Catholic liturgies and the spirituality of the Desert Fathers by Western Catholics.

That is the confusion, I believe, at the bottom of the very public debate between Gregory Wolfe and Paul Elie on the pages of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Wolfe’s response to Elie captures the Catholic necessity of speaking to one’s own historical moment:

In short, the myth of secularism triumphant in the literary arts is just that—a myth. Yet making lists of counterexamples does not get at a deeper matter. It has to do with the way that faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it.

Mr. Elie quotes Flannery O’Connor’s manifesto: “For the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” That made sense in the context of her time, when the old Judeo-Christian narrative was locked in a struggle with the new secular narratives of Marx, Freud and Darwin.

However, we live in a postmodern world, where any grand narrative is suspect, where institutions are seen as oppressive. So the late Doris Betts could say that for all her admiration of Flannery O’Connor, her own fiction had to convey faith in whispers rather than shouts. Indeed, one of the most ancient religious ideas is that grace works in obscure, mysterious ways. But obscure is not invisible.[8]

We once again circle back to the ancient issue of iconoclasm. The task of the Catholic imagination today is one of discerning with its double vision the confusing questions of an ironic age. Ironically, Catholicism’s critical iconophilia becomes a kind of iconoclasm against the all-pervading iconoclasm of our present-day historical situation. The Latin Church’s mission has historically developed toward this uncomfortable middle between iconoclasm and iconophilia. It condemns evil, but also holds up the good it finds in a world it imagines for us dramatically hanging in the balance between heaven and hell.

The imagination is not mere fancy.

Featured Image: Giotto, The Lamentation of Christ from the Scrovegni Chapel, c. 1306. Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

[1] These reflections grow out of the themes covered in her forthcoming book: Natalie Carnes, Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia (Stanford, CA: Stanford, 2017).

[2] Natalie Carnes, “Breaking the Power of Monuments,” Stanford University Press Blog, 29 August 2017, http://stanfordpress.typepad.com/blog/2017/08/breaking-the-power-of-monuments.html#more, accessed 12 September 2017.  

[3] John Pfordresher, Jesus and the Emergence of a Catholic Imagination (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2008), 56.

[4] The Alexamenos Graffito is dated to sometime between the 1st and 3rd Centuries.

[5] Cennino Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook (New York, Dover, 1954), 2.

[6] John Pfordresher, op. cit.

[7] Dana Gioia, “The Catholic Writer Today,” First Things (blog), December 2013, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/12/the-catholic-writer-today, accessed 12 September 2017.

[8] Gregory Wolfe, “Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World,” The Wall Street Journal, 11 January 2013, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324081704578231634123976600, accessed 13 September 2017.

Artur Rosman

Artur Rosman is the Managing Editor of Church Life Journal.