Beyond images and paint? Not really

Anyone who has read GetReligion for any time at all knows that our goal is to offer criticism -- positive and negative -- of mainstream news coverage of religion events and trends. The key word is "news." Inside that goal is our determination to spot religion "ghosts" that haunt major stories, religious themes or facts that are essential to understanding what is going on -- but are missing. Thus, we say stories of this kind are haunted (if you have never read our opening, foundational essay, please do so).

We also, from time to time, jump out of mainstream news if we find articles, op-ed essays and even unfiltered documents that seem to point toward important stories that, for some reason or another, mainstream newsrooms are ignoring or, perhaps, simply missing. That's our "Got news?" niche.

Needless to say, it is rare for your GetReligionistas to write about an essay on the fine-arts beat. But this recent Boston Globe piece rattled my chain for several obvious reasons. You see, I think that art is more than just art, especially when the art in question is -- in terms of history and Tradition, with a large "T" -- not really art. I also find it strange that the word "Orthodox" does not appear in this piece, although it does mention the Byzantine era.

Here's the top of the essay:

CLINTON -- In 1911, Henri Matisse, loathed and ridiculed in France, arrived in Moscow to a hero's welcome. He was a guest of the collector Sergei Shchukin. Shchukin's cousin Ilya Ostroukhov was an early and important collector of Russian icons, and when the three men dined together at Ostroukhov's, Matisse became infatuated by what he saw.

His excitement kept him awake all night. The next day, they toured the Tretyakov Gallery, prompting Matisse to say: "I have spent 10 years searching for something your artists discovered in the 14th century."

Matisse had his reasons for visiting Moscow. But if he were alive today, he could have had a similarly profound experience on a visit to Clinton. One hour from Boston, Clinton is home to the Museum of Russian Icons, which claims to be in possession of the largest private collection of icons outside Russia (400 and counting). The museum opened just four years ago, and it's already in the middle of an expansion.

OK, now you would expect that this essay by staff writer Sebastian Smee would address this question: What did Matisse discover in that gallery of icons? To answer this question, the essay would need to consider that the answer is spiritual as well as artistic. Right?

I say that, because the point of the essay is that people continue to respond to icons in a mysterious manner that transcends mere logic and, truth be told, interest in artistic excellence. After all, readers are told:

On the ... afternoon of my visit, people were pouring in. A Russian oligarch had arrived by limousine from New York that morning, according to curator Kent dur Russell. Afterward, at the bar of an Italian restaurant around the corner, a local couple told me that after their first visit to the museum, they immediately booked a three-week trip to Russia. That's the kind of place it is, and the kind of effect it's having. ...

Icons are not just images. They are objects with a unique presence somewhere between sculpture, painting, and shrine. They are conceived as proxies: Veneration passes through the icon to the saint or divinity depicted. During the Byzantine era, which saw divisive outbreaks of iconoclasm, this notion proved contentious (the second commandment forbids the making of graven images). But for centuries, people -- and not just Christians -- have recognized something transparent and humble about the icon, a sense that it points to a beauty beyond itself.

That's close to the real subject. However, the main themes in the piece remain safely academic and artistic.

Please here me say that these primarily secular, academic concerns are valid. There are artistic images to discuss. However, to leave the mystery of icons at that level is to fail to address why people respond so strongly to them, why people are visiting this exhibit and then booking flights to Russia. For example, some artists, frankly, think they are horrible as art. Why? Some people are moved by simple icons that, as art, are not "top notch." But, you see, they are not responding to these icons as art. Art is only part of the real story.

Read the essay, please -- especially you Orthodox readers and other lovers of the churches of the East.

I think something is missing. Consider this reference to the Andrei Rublev icon that accompanies this post, a mysterious image that is one of the most beloved in Eastern Orthodoxy:

None perhaps is as moving as the "Old Testament Trinity," which shows God appearing to Abraham in the guise of three angels. The angels, who will intercede to provide Abraham and his wife, Sara, with a son, Isaac, dominate the composition. Robed in lustrously cool reds, blues and greens against a gold-leaf backdrop, they combine monumentality with a sweet and mysterious shyness, reminiscent of the Virgin in an Annunciation or of the bathers in Matisse's 1908 "Bathers With a Turtle."

That's one way to put it.

Then again, that completely ignores church history and how this icon is interpreted -- yes -- by believers. That interpretation certainly isn't news. I know that. But it's part of this story.

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