By Dennis Raverty
In the little church of Santa Francesca Romana near the ruins of the Roman Fora, above a small side altar, there is what little remains of one of the most compelling of ancient Christian icons of the Madonna Hodegetria gesturing to her divine Son. Painted in encaustic (i.e. pigments suspended in hot wax) the original painting dates from the sixth century, making it among the oldest Christian icons in existence anywhere. The scale is more than twice life-size, which gives it a far greater impact than can be sensed in any reproduction. What struck me when I saw the work in person last year was how modern the work appeared, with its hauntingly expressive distortions. Rarely have I encountered such a powerful sense of presence in any image.
If examined closely, it can be seen that the faces of both Mary and Christ have been cut from the original fabric on which they were painted and glued to the present wooden panel. We assume it to be a reconstruction of the damaged icon from which it was salvaged, and which was assembled in its present form only later, scholars say — perhaps centuries later. The original cloth from which the faces were cut, was probably one of those wonder-working images that was preserved over the centuries not so much for its uncanny beauty as for its spiritual power and efficacy.
The face of Christ is so damaged as to be difficult for us to make out, but in the visage of the God-bearer (as she is known among the Orthodox) the expression is wonderfully preserved. She gazes at us with a wise, penetrating, yet humble expression, deferring to her son and redirecting our attention from her to him, while at the same time, acting as an intercessor and mediator on our behalf. The obscurity of Christ’s face only adds to the sense of wonder and mystery for the contemporary viewer, as if she were gesturing towards a transcendent being whose ultimate form is entirely beyond the powers of human representation itself.
During the 19th century, works like this, from what art historians call the Late Roman period, were routinely dismissed, as such work was considered to be a degeneration from classical style into an abstraction driven by a loss of technical ability, sinking ever lower from lofty Greek idealism to vulgar Roman realism to Late Roman “decadent” abstraction.
It was Austrian art historian Alois Riegl during the first decade of the 20th century who instigated a paradigm shift in the field, beginning to look at Late Roman style sympathetically, on its own terms, as opposed to seeing it as merely a degeneration of classicism. They began to see the abstraction in Late Roman art in a more positive light, as a turn away from the harsh realism and materialism of earlier Roman art toward a new sense of transcendence and spirituality.
It is no coincidence that this newfound appreciation for the expressive power of non-classical art occurred in Vienna, one of the most important centers of Jungendstil and Expressionism during the decade before the First World War. It is as if seeing the distortions in the work of contemporaneous artists opened up critics and art historians to the nearly forgotten power of such ancient and venerable works as this icon.
Abstraction of form was not at all incidental to the early Christian icon painters, but was actually an integral part of the theology that eventually was developed around the cult of images and image veneration in the Early Church. It was held that a merely realistic representation of Christ captured only his human nature, but not his divine nature. A stylized, more abstract treatment of his countenance more perfectly represented the Incarnation, transfiguring his face and figure in a sacramentally abstract manner.
The saints, including his mother, the Queen of Saints, as “mirrors” of Christ also partake in his divine nature and uncreated light, although to a lesser degree, through a process of “growing up into him, who is the head” (Eph. 4:15). Thus, they too are also shown as if transformed by grace into a semi-abstract stylization of form. Through engagement with the iconic image, we too are intended to become transformed into his image. This compelling Madonna draws us to herself and urges us to seek the advent of her son in our hearts by means of her enigmatic, compassionate, and sublime gaze.
Dennis Raverty is an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, specializing in art of the 19th and 20th centuries.