Hello Fellow Iconophiles:
This month, I have two articles that have, at heart, a re-examination of two central issues to Icon making:
First, the Getty Museum has just announced a new digital art history protest of Medieval art and it’s relationship to Christianity and culture – all issues that are part of the invisible foundations of Icon writing.
Second, Mary Jane Miller, an Iconographer in Mexico, wrote and asked if she could guest blog on a topic pertinent to Icon writing- Women in Icons- cultural biases and concerns. It’s a good topic with many more points that could made in the future. Hope you enjoy them both! As always, we look forward to your comments and thoughts as long as they are given a constructive and kind spirited manner!
A new digital art history project seeks to correct biases in how databases represent meaning in medieval Christian imagery
From “The Iris” Behind the Scenes at the Getty Museum
The French Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art (INHA) is launching an ambitious project for scholars and the broader public that proposes an innovative way of accessing medieval Christian images. By building complex and nuanced vocabularies of keywords and terms, the “Ontology of Medieval Christianity in Images” (OMCI) will allow databases to better represent how such images depict philosophical and spiritual themes that have been diminished or even ignored in current approaches.
Traditionally, Western art history has favored examining narrative aspects of medieval Christian images over conceptual ones. As art historians have adopted digital media in their work, this preference has been reflected in the structure of databases, which have tended to organize information about medieval Christian artworks around themes related to biblical and Christian places, events, characters, and objects.
However, medieval Christian artworks depict much more than narratives. In the Christian tradition, the material and spiritual worlds, and the course of history itself, are expressions of God’s law for the universe. The very structure of medieval Christian images—as expressed in their content and composition—often mirrors that overarching cosmological order.
In other words, the relationship between pictorial content and religious ideology in medieval Christian images is much more nuanced, and more expressive, than simple storytelling. The OMCI is concerned with this ontological level of analysis: the OMCI team of art historians, graduate students, and technology experts intends to build a web resource that will identify keywords and iconographical themes linked to medieval Christian knowledge and belief systems. These will be augmented by examples from the art of that period—such as the images featured above—that reflect both cultural values and Christian ideals.”
New Review of Women in Christian Sacred Images
By Mary Jane Miller, Iconographer
“I HAVE been a practicing Christian all my life and half of that time dedicated to the practice of painting (writing) icons. Biblical text, liturgy, and prayer are my source of strength and comfort, just like millions of people around the world. I would like to share some of the observations I have made while painting icons and at times disturbing reflections on some familiar Bible verses. Adam and Eve: the biblical story interpreted often defines Eve as being created second to Adam and responsible for original sin, which of course became all women’s greatest sin, the temptation of sexual sin. 1 Corinthians 14:34 : “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak…”, the new testament continues with verses that ultimately prohibiting them from serving in positions of authority, the like of which has effected every women’s place in society. In actuality, beginning as early as the fourth century the dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to thwart the ascendant positions for women within the religious hierarchy and in christian societies in general.
The underlying teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, – all call for the proper and equitable treatment of God’s children. I have always known in my heart and soul, women are not inferior to men; without a doubt, God loves humanity equally. Tragically, as an iconographer of 25 years, self taught and inspired, I have not had to look far to see that in this great tradition that I so love, the place of women in the iconographers community or in the images depicted thy have been noticeably absent until recently.
Now ironically, women may be holding the means to this great sacred art forms survival. Those who are graced with the desire to paint sacred text, have an obligation as prayer practitioners to re-examine how or why Women are not mentioned in the great feast days like Pentecost, at the last supper, or the baptism of Christ, etc. It is not God’s commandment that they are not heard of in text or seen in sacred image. When the feminine voice and new icon images are ushered into today’s church community, the addition will benefit us all. When you stand before an icon for any amount of time you cannot help but see first the beauty they have as a work of art. A well done icon is a powerful tool and often provokes insights and visions. This interior conflict for women because of our absence within the fullness of societies and the church is a worthy discussion we all need to engage in. We live in an age of great bigotry, self righteousness and personalized isolation. Including more women in Icons stimulates new perspectives on a theological issue which is still in it’s infancy.
Some might ask, why would I care about such details. If you are an iconographer you are supposed to transcribe the Bible word for word and uphold the theological doctrines which the church maintains. The problem for me is my thinking mind. Mary being portrayed as the perfected quiet servant and silent mother I feel has been a hindrance to the development of women and their voice in the Christian church institutions.
I am asking for a simple review to rectify what we all are beginning to see as misguided behavior of the past. That must change if we are to going to have a thriving church in the future. When the feminine voice and new icon images are ushered into today’s church community, the addition will benefit us all.
Inquisitive women like myself have always been around Christ listening to His message, they were there cooking and cleaning at the Last Supper, at the wedding at Canon and when He fed the five thousand. When Christ invited the children, you can be sure the mothers were there, too. These women were imbued with unrecognized human qualities: those who speak and those who contemplate, those who teach and those who administer and, finally, those who are mystics with their wisdom, living and walking among us. If we believe that God’s boundless presence is reflected through sacred text and in iconographic image, then the New Eve can and should live in communion with the New Adam to offset the gender imbalance in science, art, government, religion and all other facets of life.
World leaders have recently published a statement that declares: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.” It is time for the church “fathers” to draft a similar statement.
While I am painting new images of women in iconography, I am also challenging all denominations within the Christian church to re-frame parts of Holy Scriptures which have justified the superiority of men over women. We are told we are One body in God, called to be One mind in Christ. Let us live into that reality where Christian women will served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, mystics, healers, teachers and prophets, etc. through image and word. ” By Mary Jane Miller San Miguel Icons
Thank you Mary Jane for your thoughts and observations. If you have a topic or article to submit for review, just send an email. Creating Sacred Images that build our relationship to God in a strong and powerful way is most important in the times we live in. May we all keep this in prayer, for God to guide His Iconographers, women and men, to create the Holy images we need for our time and culture today.
May God bless you and keep you, and may His wisdom fill all that you say and do.
Christine Hales Icon Writing Class at Holy Cross Monastery July 21-23