Friday, July 31, 2009

Lydia and Plato

Mars and I were both Philosophy majors in college, and we have a small collection of Hispanic New Mexican religious folk art. Last week I wouldn't have even used those two facts in the same sentence. Now it makes perfect sense to me.

Most of the artworks are "Santos" (painted/carved images of saints) -- several of them created by one particular "Santara" (Lydia) who lives in the Taos area. All are modern. Although we collect them for the way that they look and their evocation of a culture with which we feel a strong affinity, they were created as religious objects -- not collectibles.

In that same spirit we recently attended an Elderhostel at the Museum of Russian Icons for our own secular, aesthetic reasons. The Santos and the Icons portray the same things but their styles are recognizably different. The Russian objects also appeal to me artistically but, probably because of our years of personal experience in New Mexico, do not effect me as emotionally as the Santos do.

The icon museum is located in Clinton Massachusetts -- one of the many former textile-milling towns in that section of the state. The major employer in town nowadays is Nypro, an internationally successful plastics company ("Where success takes shape"), whose Chairman of the Board, Gordon Lankton, turned his personal collection of sacred Orthodox artworks into this public museum.

He spoke to our group about how he began his collection with a $25 purchase at a Moscow flea market. Over three hundred fifty of his accumulated pieces -- most costing considerably more than his original acquisition -- are now housed in this museum, which he opened in 2007.

In addition to Mr. Lankton, David Durrant the architect who custom-converted the former mill building into a museum, Kent Russell the Curator, and Olga Litvak professor of Jewish-and-Russian Studies spoke to our class.

I knew nothing about Russian Icons other than their subject matter, so just about everything that they said was new to me. Then, as I sat down to write this account, I was brushing up on my New Mexican folk art terminology in a book called "Santos and Saints" by Thomas J. Steele, S.J. and I discovered that many of the major attributes of the Russian icons were also true of the Santos.

As mentioned above the subject matter is the same: Christ, Mary the Mother of God, individual saints, and (considerably less common in Santos) bible stories.

The technicalities are similar. Both are created on wood that has been coated with gesso. The paints are created from the minerals and vegetation of the earth. Images and backgrounds are presented as flat.

But, most importantly, their guiding principles are cut from the same cloth.

The centerpiece of the museum, and of Russian iconography, is the Image-Not-Made-By-Hands, a.k.a. The First Icon.

According to legend Jesus himself produced the first icon. King Agbar of Edessa, a leper, heard of Jesus' healing powers, and sent a messenger to bring Jesus back to heal him. Along with a letter declining the invitation because of his pressing mission, Jesus sent the MANDILION, a cloth on which the image of his face was miraculously reproduced. (

The museum does not own the original face print of Christ. Unlike similar religious objects such as the Shroud of Turin the current location of the first Image-Not-Made-By-Hands is not known. The representation has however been recreated imitatively by icon artists (or "writers" as they prefer) throughout the history of the craft and is one of the most frequently used, effigies of Russian iconography.

In fact the art of Russian iconography consists entirely of exactly recreating accepted iconic images and combining them following strict rules such as the order in which colors are placed on the object, and which symbols are theologically correct for the story being told.

(Interesting aside: The icon on display in the museum is actually a three year old exact replica of a much older picture that Mr. Lankton purchased in Russia but which he is not allowed to remove from that country. Even that copy was "written" according to the rules of the craft.)

A Renaissance painter would attempt to portray a chair realistically (three dimensionally) and, if asked what the subject of the painting was would say "a chair". A Russian Icon writer would depict the same object and say it was "an image of a chair".

Mars and I learned something like this in Philosophy 101. The Greek philosopher Plato believed that even the chairs that we actually sit in are merely imperfect images of the "Idea" of a chair. I never quite comprehended this -- but it made enough sense to me that I felt I should have. Apparently others understood it better.

In the New Mexican santero tradition, a painting was judged holy if it repeated the previous painting of the same subject in its tradition, and it thereby resembles the icon of Greek Byzantium and Russia. The theory of icons in the Orthodox Churches was based on the Neoplatonic doctrine of participation, and so it interpreted the icon as a dependent entity that shared the being, holiness, power, intelligibility, beauty, life, and purpose of its model. In New Mexico, even the relatively and naively naturalistic late-nineteenth-century bultos [folk art images] developed within a folk-Platonic mentality. (Santos and Saints).

An illustrated guide to Plato right here on our family room walls. Who knew?

All my life's a circle -- or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

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