The Question of Likeness Conclusion

The question of actual physical likeness in all these portraits is a thorny one, particularly since actual "from life'* portraits do not exist (even in chiding any that may have been painted by Luke). Moreover, in the absence of contemporary written descriptions of most of the saints {with the possible exception of Paul's description in the Acts of Paul and Theda), we have no way of comparing descriptions with portraits. Vet portraits of Peter, PauL or Mary are clearly recognizable, and they in turn contribute to Lhe established tradition of how these individuals "Looked," at least in their artistic representations. Through time, subsequent artists drew upon the early traditions, and so, in time, their images became even more standardized. Even so, names were still placed above or near the faces of most other samts, and particular attributes or objects were included to aid in their identification (like Saint Lawrence's griddle or Saint Catherines wheel J,

However, if the "truth'1' of the portrait is based at some level on its purported likeness to its subject, then a likeness based merely on tradition might be challenged, and the basis for an image's Legitimacy wouEd then be open to question. At least one early critic, opposed to all kinds of religious images, may have used this problem of ^likeness" as a way to discredit them. Fpiphanius, the renowned opponent of heresy, wrote a letter to Emperor Theodosius I, urging him to tear down curtains that bore images of the saints in churches, martyria, baptisteries, and even private homes, to whitewash over walls with fresco port raits, and—as much as possible—to remove mosaics with such figures. He claims that such things have no authority from antiquity and accuses those who crafted them of inventing falsehoods and thereby dishonoring the saints:

FurtherttlOre, they lie by l'epresenting the appearance of .sEiinfs in different forms according to their whim, sometimes delineating the same persons as old men, sometimelB as youths, Land so| intruding into things which they have not --- These im posters represent the holy apostle Peter as an old man with hair and beard cut shorn some represent St, Paul as a man with receding hair, others as being bald and bearded, and the other apostles as being closely cropped^

Clearly, Epiphmiius doubted the validity of anything created out ol the imagination of artists, and he wou Ed have dismissed any claims of inspiration as mere "whim," However, he was not so much worried that the artists got the likeness "wrong" as that they dared to make portraits at all, Bui imagination was not always seen as a mere whim of an artist, since images created from the mind might also be seen as improvements over those seen with the eye. Since external physical images were ever-changing in any case, they could never be an ultimate truth. This was an otd idea, elaborated by the Greeks as far back as Aristotle, when he argued that the imaginative work of the artist had intrinsic value and was not merely a mimetic activity, trying to reproduce an exact "likeness." The artists vision, according to Aristotle, was guided by divine reason and reflected an ideal image known by the mind. When this guidance was incorporated into the final product, the outcome was an improvement upon the original, eliminating natural defects and enhancing beauty, likeness was not lost in this process, but rather more closely achieved/' Nearly six hundred years later, the port rait-shy Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus elaborated on this aspect of artistic "invention," contending much like Aristotle that true artists do not simply imitate what they see, but instead transform their bodily vision through the work of the mind or soul. Thus, the product is made more perfect than the model {in nature) because of their inspired awareness of the perfect form. In this caseT a work of art is no mere imitative by-product of a skilled or unskilled imitator or a mere physical appearance, but the result of an aim to achieve the perfect likeness as it exists in an ideal realm. For example, when he discusses the figure that the sculptor Pheidias made of Zeus, Plotinus regards the artist s imposition of a form seen in the intellect but not in the senses with approval: "Thus Pheidias wrought the Zeus upon no model among things of sense, but by apprehending what fonn Zeus must take if he chose to become manifest to sight"5* Such a statement recalls Apollonius of Tyana's defense of die manner by which Greek artists fashioned images of their gods:

Imagination wrought these works, a wiser and subtler arti&t by far than imitation; for imitation can oniy create as its handiwork what it has seen, but imagination equally what ¡L has not seen; for it will conceive of its ideal with reference to the reality, and imitation is often baffled by terror, but imagination by nathiEtyi for it marcher undismayed to the ¿pal which it has itself hid down.51

Although Plotinus's positive regard for some kinds of artistic production may seem almost ironic given his general suspicion of the material world and external appearances, he is joined in this by another unlikely advocate. Augustine, although not a well-recognized defender of the value of visual images, took a similar line in his distinction between sense-knowledge and art. For him, art is judged as truthful through the faculty of reason, although the senses are the intermediaries in this process. The standard of truth is perceptible by the mind and absolutely unchangeable. Because of this, the human mind is at so able to recognize error, and even to suffer it to some degree, but yet to distinguish the discrepancy between the ideal and the actual as well as the degree to which the image represents the world. For Augustine, however, good judgment is even better than artistic skill/-

Religious portraits were also held lo incorporad ihh clcniciil of artistic ^kill and stamp, but, eventually, they would be seen less- .i product i^l imagination ili.sii of inspiration .likI devotion, sin«1 they were imended io be .itl-IhI reproductions* Basil ti h Caesarea described painters ^ painting from other pictures» constantly looking at |he model, and doing their best m irnnjfer its linea mem s m i hL-ir own work, Theodore the Studite, defending the icons against the second wave of iconoclasm in rhe ninth century, called On Basil as an ancient authority, and quoted hi m as saying:

In gpnçTjl (he .iiiih.. ijiiujp:, mude ■ -l aller it!- prolog ^l. Irrings the likeness ni i hi i ■■ m i. r i u- iniu fflaClí r and utquires i share in iEs iurti i by nrans of the [hougfiA of the jrlisl and the impresa oí tili Iiand*. Th is is truc ■ : I i ht pai titer, (he stynf varuti. and lhe one w ho make* statues úom go d -=.: ■ lI bronze: each take* m .i i r^-:-. looks at eHl prototype, receives the imprint of that which ¡Le Lontemplales, and prases il like ¿ seat on to hi?- material.11

Tile litLÍnL i-n bui^a kind ùl vLSLu-narVj one who reççiYÇ.H image and moreover is granted the ability to transfer the idc.L iniu l i ¡-I form.

Thus, the likeness or the saint reality thai exists apart from tinpure Imagination i^l the .itlki, which would not have been deemed a positivem even adequate means oí aliening a "likeness1 by itself. J'he claim for likeness lies either in ;i miraculously received prototype (for example, lhe Mandyfion of Abgarh = n the tradition (which may make a .. laim for an Ot ■ ! : i ■ ■ ■ ■ I "limn life" [Hiubt^c ut an eyrwitiic5i dcscrip tion), ot in the simple recognition of lIil' devout beholder. In the nul, the truth I it's in the acccpfjTicc of the image and in il-, efficacy as an object of veneration, which may have nothing in the end to lIh with absolute claims to accurately represent lhe physical appearance the saint—oir even of Christ, After all, the representations of the same saint do show a marked variety, nisi .is a >ei of contemporary photographs (il ihf same person might, without necessarily raising tL-.nliht^ about iIil-"truth" nf :lu- image. Recognition is based not only on external details but, finally, on ;l whole complex ot" almost inexplicable signs Lh,it add up to identity and allow the viewer to claim: "I'd know her/him anywhere .lh,,,,

Despite this general truism, the tradition of saints' portraits preserves a strnngly hold belief tbat saints' images were faithful representations of tlit ic actual physical appearance. Later saints3 lives often mention their sitting for i h L.- i i- portraits, as in the case of Saint Fheodore ofSykeon in lLl' seventh century, whn (like Ploiinus) resisted and had to be painted surreptitiously,* Those saints who had died without having left such records, however, presented challenge. In time, howeveT, those saints' appearances began lo conform, helpfully, lo I heir portraits. For™in-I Av. i I-cawarded apparitions of the Blessed Virgin generally describe her in terms that match her representation in popular portraiture, which only makes sense. How else would they identify herr Epiphany depends, after alt, on recognition. Gilbert Dagron cites many cases where the saint-s appearance to a visionary was authenticated by reference to its conformity to that saint's portrait and concludes: recognize the saint from his image, but this image prefigures the vision I shall have of him. This is more or less the vicious circle in which we are caught and which gives the world of the icon its perfect autonomy,"'' And this autonomy, as Dagron points out, is based in the same claims til at the ancient philosophers made about the portrait—that the "truth"1 of ail image never lies in its externa) accuracy, but rather in its ability to inspire the viewer to see more than the surface image and to recognize the transcendent ideal to which it points. On a more practical level, the saints were recognizable according to the wav that tradition had defined them, which might have very little to do with the definition of likeness in the purely external or mundane sense, and, when traditions differed, as they did later from the East to the West, the portraits might not be universally recognizable.H

And this point returns us to the one that Augustine articulated in his treatise on the Trinity, that die faith of the viewer was not shaken, nor the quality of devotion affected, in the end, by the external likeness of any portrait:

Anyone, surely, who has read or heard what the apostle Paul wrote or what was Written about him, will fabricste a facu for the apostle in hi.s imagination and for everybody else whose name is mentioned in these texts. And every on*: of the vast number oJ people lo whom writing* are known will think of their physical features and lineaments in a different way, and it will be quire impossible to tell whose thoughts arc nearest the mark in this respect,,.. Even rhe physical face ot the Lord is pictured with infinite variety by countless imaginations, though whatever it was like he certainly only had one, Nor as regiirds the faith we have in the Lixnd Jesus Christ is it in the leost relevant to salvation what qui imaginations picture hint like, which is probably quite different from the reality, ,,. What does matter is that we think of him as a mani for we have embedded in us as it were a standard notion of the nature of man. . -. Nor do we know what the virgin Mary looked like, from whom he was marvelous!)' born P nor have we seen Lazarus and what kind of figure he had. . .. And so without prujudiee to faith it is permissible to say "Perhaps she had a face like this, perhaps she did not.",H

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment