Bending Heaven Down to Earth

The Medieval Icon

in Religion and the Arts
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This article sets out to rehabilitate the medieval icon as a visual paradigm, seeing it not as a primitive attempt at painterly perspective and the verisimilitude it sought to achieve, but as a sophisticated symbolic system with an entirely different intention, one that will be shown to share the apophatic nature of certain mystical texts. The “inverse perspective” that typifies the icon creates the impression of a figure actively gazing out of the frame at the viewer, calling him or her to witness an intention that is not depicted on the panel but that haunts it from an invisible dimension beyond. Seeing this intention requires the witness to move by means of contemplation beyond the pigment and egg-yolk of the panel toward the archetype. It is this movement that differentiates the icon from an idol, which presents the visible as a full presence with no exit onto alterity. Finally, I hope to show that this distinction between icon and idol is still relevant today, the apophatic movement of the icon providing a valid alternative to our post-modern saturation of visibility.

Bending Heaven Down to Earth

The Medieval Icon

in Religion and the Arts

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    Figure 1

    Duccio (di Buoninsegna), Christ and the Pilgrims on the Road to Emmaus, thirteenth century. Panel from the back of the Maesta altarpiece. Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana, Siena, Italy. Scala / Art Resource, NY: ART29346.

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    Figure 2

    Novgorod School, sixteenth century. St. Luke. Courtesy of the Ikonen-Museum Recklinghausen, Recklingshausen, Germany.

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    Figure 3

    Duccio (di Buoninsegna), Madonna of the Franciscans, 1300. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, Italy. Scala / Art Resource, NY: ART120823.

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    Figure 4

    Giovanni di Paolo, Baptist Predella, Saint John the Baptist Retiring to the Desert. Predella Panel from an Altarpiece, 1454. Egg tempera on wood, 30.5×49cm. National Gallery, London. © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY: ART373169.

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    Figure 5

    Grabado-Dibujos Pompeyanos. Private Collection, Paris, France. Album / Art Resource, NY: ORZ031721.

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    Figure 6

    Russian, Christ Pantocrator, sixteenth century. Courtesy of the Temple Gallery, London, England.

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    Figure 7

    Pskov School, Saint Luke Painting the Mother of God, sixteenth century. Pskov National Museum, Russia.

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