"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Icons of Death

Driving home the other day, I turned off the radio in a fury when some nitwit on the local NPR station kept referring to people who recently "passed." To that insufferable recent usage, I always reply with heavy sarcasm: Passed what? wind? the off-ramp on the highway they were supposed to take? a school examination? "Passed away" was bad enough--which I never used not only because I abhor death-denying euphemisms but also because it's shoddy theology--but this "passed" business really is intolerable. People die; when they have done so, they are dead. We are--as Evelyn Waugh noted, in his own myth-busting, euphemism-mocking satire of death and funerals, The Loved One--parched for this kind of straight-talk today, stranded in a desert of denial and obfuscation. The inability or unwillingness to speak candidly about death serves nobody well.

Released this month is a Kindle version of an interesting book that reveals a very different approach to death taken by Eastern Christians, an approach that looks death in the face and avoids the cowardly dodges so many take today. Originally published in 1997 by a leading classicist and historian who is well acquainted with Byzantine iconography is Robin Cormack's Painting the Soul: Icons, Death Masks and Shrouds.

About this book we are told:
Icons are among the most elusive subjects in the history of art, but at the same time their study constitutes possibly its fastest expanding field, and with the opening-up of the former Soviet Union many new objects are being discovered, studied and exhibited. In this book, Robin Cormack considers the icon as an integral document of society and gives us new insights into the nature of Byzantine art. Painting the Soul explores both the creation and the development of the icon. After the early Christians – like the pagans before them – had come to expect their god to be visually present among them, endless questions confronted both the artist and the Church. What did Christ look like? How should Christ be represented? Should Christ be represented (as he is for example on the Turin Shroud)? Appropriately, Cormack’s study ends with Venetian Crete, where the icon underwent its final development and transformation into the art of the Renaissance. Here, established Byzantine forms of religious art confronted developing Renaissance modes of expression: the first ‘icons’ of El Greco were painted in Crete. Painting the Soul is beautifully illustrated, featuring many little-known works of art. Even so, Cormack treats the icon not as a mere artistic product, but as the symbolic face of medieval Europe. He shows how this new field within the history of art – the study of the icon – will transform our understanding of European art and culture.
As noted, Cormack is the author of Byzantine Art (Oxford UP, 2000), 256pp. as well as Icons (Harvard UP, 2007), 144pp.

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