Descriptions of Saints' Portraits in Literary Documents 179 Specific Examples of Holy Portraits 1S6 Th e Quest ion of Likeness: C onclusi on 19 6
Notes 201 Glossary 223 Select Bibliography 225 Index 231
IN THE EARLY autumn of 1888, two years before his death and, despite the ravages of his final illness, experiencing one of his most productive periods, Vincent van Gogh wrote a few lines about the nature of portrait painting to his brother, Theo:
Ah my dear brother, sometimes I know so well what I wanl. I can well do without God in both my life and also in my painting,but suffering as I am, ] cannot do without ¡¡(untitling greater than myself something which is my life—the power to create. An J if, deprived of the physical power, one tries to create thoughts instead of children, one is still very much part of humanity. And in my pictures ] want to say something consoling as music does. [ wan I to paint men and women with a touch of the eternal, whose symbol was oikc the halo, which we try to convey by the very radiance and vibrancy of our colouring. ... Ah portraiture, portraiture, with the mind, the soul of the model —that is what really must come, it seems to me.'
Vincent's insistence that a true portrait captures far more than a physical likeness by also portraying the mind and the soul of the model, is well illustrated by the work he produced around that time. Departing from a concentration on landscapes and still ] i fes, or anonymous scenes of workers and café sitters, he produced a series of memorable images including the portrait of the postman Joseph Roulin (Aries, August, 1888), the Arles i en tie (Aries, November, 1888), the Woman Rocking a Cradle (Aries, December, 1888), the Head Warder at the Asylum of Saint-Rémy (St.-Rémy, 1889), and finally his own self-portrait, painted two months before his suicide (Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890). Through color, composition, and technique, Vincent here captured the distinct personality of each model, and lime's passing has borne this out as a <Ltouch of the etcmal.' These portraits say as much abouL the painters skill and insight as they do about the model's personality or aspirations, and the faces of these ordinary persons indeed have become eternal in their way. Van Gogh3s models appear on postcards sold in nearly every art bookshop in the world, their faces as familiar to us as certain celebrities or pop stars.
The fascination with trying to "capture the soul" of an individual by making a physical likeness coexists with art itself From Egyptian mummies to Byzantine icons to the work of such twentieth-century photographers as Alfred Steigleitz, Richard Avedon, and Diane Arbus, portraits have been private and intimate, public and monumental, huge and tiny, religious and secular. They might show the whole human form or merely a disembodied face. Sometimes portraits had utilitarian purposes such as recording the physical appearance of princess candidates for dynastic marriage; others guarded the family as tutelary spirits or mediated the divine presence of a deity. Essentially, they portrayed the appearance of an individual (human, divine, or imagined) produced from life or from memory, so as to allow identification, aid the memory» reveal key aspects of the subject's character or personality, or invite devotion.
Portraits are potent and can be dangerous. Persons who have become ostracized or unpopular may have their images cut out, painted over, or digitally removed. Portrait statues of former rulers and dictators have been toppled or decapitated as a means of erasing their memory and indicating their impotence. In some cultures, taking a photograph of an unsuspecting stranger is not only rude but equivalent to stealing. To own an image is to rob identity or to gain access to the inner being, possibly for evil purpose. Portraits also present a moment of a life from a certain viewpoint, which may be revealing, manipulative, truthful, idealizing, or distorting. Portraits honor, expose, examine, or express the reality of a human, physical existence. They can describe, exalt, or ridicule; they may inspire contemplation, derision, imitation, or devotion. They may be brutally honest or deeply sympathetic, their subjects shown as heroic, noble, saintly, stupid, weak, 01 evil. Likeness is not an easy thing to define, and its measure lies in the response of a viewer as much as in the skill or intentions of the artist. Whereas caricature captures certain id en till able features and exaggerates them into humorous or mocking portrayals, idealizing images work in the opposite direction, but both can be likenesses. Picassos portrait of Dora iMar in the cubist style is also a likeness on its own terms.
The matter of identification is key since the original and image are related but very different things, One is not contained within the other: the latter only refers to the former, or merely even to some aspect of that other's existence—merely a single moment in time, an episode of a life, but not the whole. Thus, the capturing of the soul is only for a specific fixed Lime and place and only according to the eye of a particular beholder (the artist and the viewer). Even so, some portraits have come to be indelibly associated with their model, like Gilbert Stuart's George Washington, or Hans Holbein's portrait of Henry VIII.
Portraits arc relational, since the viewer meets the model face to face. And the face above all fin particular, the eyes) serves as the vulnerable conduit to the soul. Although portraits may include the rest of the body, the face also is the basis of the likeness. Eyes don't always meet the gaze of the viewer, since some portraits are in profile, but a faceless portrait is almost incomprehensible. Without the face, the portrait is incomplete, but a .superficial facial image itself is not necessarily a portrait The driver's license or identity card only roughly matches an external appearance and has a single function. A true portrait conveys something essential about its subject that transcends mere surface likeness. This is achieved through the use of color, composition, technique, 01 style, which includes such secondary details as costume, props, or setting that add important identifying as well as descriptive elements.
tor some religious persons, the idea of making a portrait of God is utterly blasphemous. God is asserted to be invisible and beyond human comprehension. Nevertheless, Scriptures are filled with anthropomorphic descriptions of God and stories of God's appearance to humans in one form or another (a burning bush, an angelic visitor, the Ancient of Days on a throne). Moses is told that lie cannot see God's face, but the Apostle Paul assures his readers that one day we will sec God "face to face'1 (] Cor 13:12)« Jesus tells his disciples that if they have seen him they have seen the Father (John 14:9), even though the fourth evangelist still claims that "no one has ever seen God" (John 1: IS), The Epistle to the Colossians calls Christ the "image of the invisible God" (1:15), And, even though it avoids any representation of the First Person of the Trinity, the Orthodox Church defends the importance of portrait icons on the basis that the incarnation of Christ gave God a "human face." These statements of faith all claim that verbal expression is not God's only means of self-revelation and that Christians might well claim that there is also a visual means of knowing and comprehending the Divine—having both ears to hear and eyes to see the "glory of the Lord" in and through the testimony of nature, history, and everyday human living.
Not only whether but how the image of God or Christ should be portrayed is a different problem, which has been deeply controversial and divisive in the history of Christianity, The problem of representing a divine nature, or even capturing a physical human likeness of that One who left no certain record of appearance or eyewitness description, might be insurmountable apart from an act of faith, a belief in the gift of a miraculous image, or the acceptance that a true likeness is not based on mundane historical data but can emerge out of tradition, personal religious experience, Or even particular vis ion ary experiences. Andn if the record shows lis anything, it is that a wide variety of different representations does not imply that all (but perhaps one) are wrong. It may be that all are right. The nearly infinite variety of portraits of Christ that have been created by Christians in all places and times may lead us to one almost paradoxical conclusion—that no one image can tell the whole story and that all can show us some aspect of the truth. In a sense, more is better. The existence of four separate canonical Gospels perhaps demonstrates this. But the same might be said of a ny human port rait as well. No one image can capture the whole of an individual's life and character Every image leads us to the model, while at the same time it shows only an aspect or even a tiny glimpse of the reality of the individual.
Thus the term "portrait*' here has a very specific meaning—it aims, like van Gogh's paintings, to capture not only the external appearance but also the whole person, including the mind and soul, and to portray that "touch of eternity" Thus, the picture tells a story far more expansive and profound than it might seem on the surface. The beauty and the truth of these Images have less to do with verisimilitude or even aesthetic judgments than with Lhe way they affect their viewers. Such images lead viewers to a different kind of understanding of the subject, and perhaps even to the story arousing affection or devotion, and finally allow the observer both to sense the presence of the model and to be inspired to imitation of the virtues conveyed through the image. In this way, the faculty of sight is a potent means by which humans may come to encounter the holy and to be transformed by that encounter.
This book examines the power of images, especially in the early Christian tradition in the centuries just prior to the establishment of and controversies surrounding the place of the icon in liturgy and devotion. 1 contend that the seeds of what later would become the Orthodox defense of the icon already existed in early Christian teaching and that actual visual images were both used and appreciated, almost as soon as Christians had any distinct material culture of their own. The later rejection of visual images by the church at various times and places (in both Last and West), even when prompted by legitimate fear of idolatry, usually misunderstood the nalure of mosL of these images and failed to attend to the essential role of seeing in the Christian teaching about salvation.
1 began this work three years ago as a Luce Fellow in Theology, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation through the Association of Theological Schools* In addition to the Foundation and the ATS, f wish to thank my teachers, Richard Brilliant, for stirring my interest in ancient portraiture, and Richard Norris, for his wise commentary on the problem of God's invisibility. Mary Charles Murray, J as Eisner, Tom Mathews, Corby Finney, and Graydon Snyder have also been important influences on rue as well. The International Catacomb Society, Amy Hirschfeld, and my other colleagues on that Board have been immensely generous with their images and their time; Kate Layzer read and ably edited some of my first drafts; and Lee Jefferson proofread and indexed the final version. ] am especially grateful to Zan Cecley of Fortress Press for her work on the design of this book—an essential aspect of any book on the visual arts. I also want to thank And over Newton Theological School for providing a sabbatical leave; Vanderbilt Divinity School for allowing me an iniLial leave from teaching after 1 joined its faculty; and my colleagues both in Boston and Nashville for stimulating conversations and support over the past decade. Finally, T want to thank my husband, Pat out Burns > for being my conversation partner, travel companion, generous and patient editor, and handy reference service. He also should get the credit for many of the photographs in this book, but wre usually cannot tell which one of us took which pictures, slides, or digital images in our collection.
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