Orthodox liturgical artists treat the vast world of secular fine art with some trepidation. The question of fine art influence on iconography, in particular, is a very delicate one. Western painting styles have done great harm to iconography historically. The reverse is arguably true as well. The ‘discovery’ of medieval painting inspired western art into the abysses of cubist abstraction. On the other hand, we can identify good influences as well. Those modern painters opened the world’s eyes to medieval iconography and set the stage for its revival.
But today I would like to share a very different genre of paintings – those which depict Orthodox art as their subject, honestly and in the natural style of the painter. These are not paintings ‘influenced’ by Orthodox art, but paintings which happen to depict it. For the painter, the choice of subject was often merely an accident of time and place – a week to spend in Istanbul painting – why not Hagia Sophia?
Such paintings are quite rare. Orthodox churches have never been a frequent subject for fine artists, being far off the beaten path of 19th-century travelers. But those that we have, which were painted by the best of western artists, have rather a lot of beauty to offer us. It is the chief virtue of naturalistic painting that it shows material things not with the uniform realism of a photograph, but as we truly perceive them with our senses. A great painter finds the most precious and distinctive beauty in a subject, refines and emphasizes it, and thereby depicts its visual ethos.
The works of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), in particular, reveal an extraordinary sensitivity to the unique beauty of Byzantine churches. His paintings impart the experience of those churches infinitely better than any photograph. And because that visual experience is inescapably holy, the paintings themselves have a prayerful beauty. They are valuable in that they show us things that do not lend themselves to words – the subtle luster of worn marble, the fiery flash of a sunbeam on gold tesserae, the ponderous quiet of an empty church in the early morning. It is hard to talk about these things the way we can talk about architectural form or iconographic programs. But it is this subtle beauty of real materiality that makes Orthodox art truly transfiguring. Architectural designs and iconological concepts do not ultimately matter if their material expression does not arrest us with beauty. These paintings show us that moment of conversion, when an outside visitor experiences a moment of atmospheric perfection in an ancient church, and suddenly sees the transfiguration of matter into something holy.
I have included here a number of paintings I have encountered over the years which I especially enjoy.