Heaven in Ordinary

Review by Gavin Dunbar

For the heirs of 19th-century aesthetic romanticism, the Reformation’s iconoclasm is a rich source of Duffyesque lament for the stripping of altars and Dearmerite fantasies of a truly tasteful reformed English Catholicism. Such laments and fantasies fit into liberal privileging of experience over doctrine, but they also appeal to the conservative suspicion of the apparent declension from ancient sacred to modern secular. Both responses to this history fail to grasp the fulfillment of Catholic antiquity in the medieval and early modern era, or of the Christian sacred in the Christian secular.

Lavishly illustrated by Yale University Press, The Italian Renaissance Altarpiece: Between Icon and Narrative by David Ekserdjian is a comprehensive and detailed taxonomy of the Italian altarpiece from the 1200s to the 1500s. It traces the multiplication of the single-field gold-ground icon in the multipanel and multistory polyptych, housing each saint in individual niches; the rise and fall of the predella (the horizontal band elevating the main panels of the altarpiece for better visibility, which became an important place for complementary narratives);and the eventualsupersession of both polyptych and predella in the single-field quadrangular pala of the Renaissance, in which elements of both were integrated. The saints once isolated in their niches were united in the informal grouping of the sacra conversazione, and the narrative explored in the predella found a place in the same panel as the iconic personages.

Ekserdjian’s account centers on what he calls “the consistent feature” of altarpieces across this period: “the need their creators felt to square the circles of the iconic and the narrative …. Time and again, artists strove to find ways to enliven and energize the inherently static Virgin and Child with Saints altarpiece, which is in essence iconic…, above all by treating the saints narratively, so that their attributes are used to tell their stories and not simply to identify them.”

In this “squaring the circle of the iconic and the narrative” one recognizes the reconciliation of infinite and finite, of divine and human, at the center of the Christian tradition, which unfolds historically in the development from the divinized humanity of late antique art (the otherworldly symbolic abstraction of the Byzantine icon) to the humanized divinity of early modern art (the naturalistic realism of the late medieval and Renaissance narrative). As Ekserdjian notes, it is a mistake to see this as a straightforward linear movement from one pole to another: just as the polyptych and predella disappear even as their elements are taken up into the pala, so is the iconic persistent in the burgeoning narrative.

Except for the late Leo Steinberg (an American of Bolshevik Russian-Jewish extraction), art historians rarely show a deep understanding of Christian doctrine, or its implications for art. Ekserdjian is no exception, but he points in the right direction. As Christian art moves from the imaging of divinized humanity to humanized divinity, it is only realizing more fully the implications of divine and human in the person of Christ, as set forth in the ancient Christology of Chalcedon, not least in the emergence of the Christian secular out of the Christian sacred — a movement in parallel with the developments in theology that gave birth to the doctrinal distinctions and clarifications made by the Reformers.

In Counter-Reformation Italian art, this Christian secular — “heaven in ordinary” — appears so very powerfully in the shocking realism of Caravaggio, with which Ekserdjian concludes his volume. The light that shines so dramatically in the darkness to expose human frailty — dirty feet, bloated cheeks, prostitutes, and ruffians — is always the light of grace.

In the Protestant North, this Christian secularity appears in the portraits, landscapes, still lifes, and interiors of the Dutch painters — even, notably, in the interiors of Vermeer and the portraits of Van Dyck, both Roman Catholics who found patronage in Protestant societies. It’s true that the visual arts did not effloresce to the same degree in Protestant England as they did in the Netherlands; but perhaps the work of the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists and poets like George Herbert may be regarded as some measure of compensation, as witnesses to “heaven in ordinary.”

The Rev. Gavin Dunbar is rector of St. John’s, Savannah, Georgia.


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