For the last decade or so we’ve been going through a renaissance in traditional religious art. I don’t mean stuff like Matthew Brooks’ “Art for the Catholic Restoration,” lively though it is; I mean Byzantine-style icons.
One of the landmark projects is Mark Dukes’ “Dancing Saints,” a work in progress at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. It’s spectacular. And like so much of the new iconographic painting, it takes a very broad view of what constitutes saintliness.
The same can be said of Robert Lentz, one of the central figures in this artistic revival. He uses traditional techniques, and some of his icons couldn’t possibly be more traditional; his Our Lady of Korsun, for example. Others are transformational, re-envisioning his subjects, as in the case of his icons of SS. Catherine of Siena, Christopher, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Anthony of Padua, Mary Magdalene, and Perpetua and Felicity.
He doesn’t stop there. Acting on his own promptings (or the Holy Spirit’s; not my call), he’s painted icons of such figures asa Albert Einstein, Cesar Chavez, Black Elk, Dorothy Day, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harvey Milk, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jalal Ud-din Rumi, John Donne, Johann Sebastian Bach, Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, Fr. Mychal Judge, Mother Jones, and Steven Biko.
I should mention somewhere along the line that the Eastern Orthodox Church has a lively icon-painting scene going. It helps that they’ve never stopped doing it.
Fr. William McNichols is another of the major new iconographers. I’m particularly fond of one of his paintings, only partly because I cracked up the minute I first saw it. I’m not sure I can properly explain this. It’s like the Mormon joke about why are crows black (answer: they refused to help the seagulls): too much explanation for a joke that should arrive as quickly and noiselessly as heat lightning.
No. Now that I think about it, I’m sure I can’t adequately explain that. Nevertheless:
The Dormition of the Mother of God, a.k.a. the Dormition of the Virgin, informally “a Dormition”, is another traditional subject. Basically, it’s the deathbed scene of the elderly Virgin Mary. Iconographers have been been painting this one for a very long time.
Existing alongside this tradition—sometimes in the same work of art—has been the also-venerable tradition of the Assumption, which instead of depicting Mary dying, shows her being swooshed straight up into Heaven. (Jesus ascended, Mary was assumed. It’s the difference between going there under your own power and being taken in tow.) Assumptions are fun to paint, so there’ve been so many them: Perugino, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Correggio, Poussin, Murillo—for a while there, everybody did an Assumption.What could possibly be funny about all this? Okay. Dogma didn’t come down on the side of the Assumption until 1950, when the Assumption (as opposed to the Dormition) was made part of the same package deal as the Immaculate Conception. And how was this arrived at? The Pope said so. It’s one of the only times the Pope’s ever exercised his famous ability to speak ex cathedra and have what he says be accepted as infallible. In theory, at any rate. As one pro-Assumption site rather bluntly put it,
It is not Mary that is the point of contention. It is about a crisis of authority and where that authority rests in relation to revealed truth.So, on the one hand, you could interpret Fr. McNichols’ Dormition as expressing a certain amount of doubt about that infallibility business. And then again, on the other hand, it could just be a very nice painting.