Thursday, December 11, 2008

The God in All of Us

Islam has traditionally forbade the artistic depiction of living forms, founded on a principle expressed in one of the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, which states: "Those who paint pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it would be said to them: Breathe soul into what you have created" (Hadith, Sahih Muslim vol.3, no. 5268). This hadith views art as a form of creation, with creation being a capacity uniquely given to humans by God when he made them in his own image. On the grounds that to shape a person or animal out of clay, paint, or marble without endowing it with the gift of life as God did is to make a mockery of that divine capacity, Islamic scholars have made a practice of banning figurative representation in art (although it has been permitted under certain rulers and at certain times in Islamic history, most notably during the Safavid period in Iran). For this reason, most Islamic art is characterized by geometric shapes and abstract motifs or is calligraphic in nature, making it perfectly suited for housewares, furniture, textiles, and architecture but not as suited to filling a canvas.

An illuminated Quran in the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization.

European artists have never had qualms about depicting the human body, not even when it belongs to the son of God himself. Each time I stroll through the pre-Renaissance European painting collection in the New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art, I am confronted by dozens of seemingly identical artistic renderings of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. Close examination reveals that each one is differentiated from the one beside it on the wall only by a slight variance in the color of the Madonna's robe or the arrangement of celestial beings posing in the background. This is art clearly meant to be functional rather than expressive; most of the paintings seen here once adorned churches, and were intended to remind the faithful of God's presence in their lives, not to distract them from their piety with beautiful images.

But as unimaginative as these early takes on the Madonna-and-Child theme seem now, such devotional works were crucial to the development of European art as a whole. With the emergence of humanist ideas in philosophy and religion and the birth of Protestantism, artistic representations of sacred figures did not dwindle in popularity, but instead began to follow a new fashion of being modeled after regular people (think Rembrandt's quietly reflective Christ or Peter Paul Rubens's famously humanized saints). When the dedication to capturing the human form that this movement inspired was applied to secular subjects as well, the door was opened for future generations of Europe's painters and sculptors to produce some of the most celebrated art we know today.

Portrait of Christ, by Rembrandt Van Rijn.

Yet perhaps, with the Islamic point of view in mind, we might consider it a sign of self-obsession that the art we hold in highest esteem in the West is that which depicts the human form. Nearly all of the "best" paintings of the European tradition are of people, and even when the people are ugly or distorted, these paintings reflect a preeminent interest
in the human body that we cannot help but find flattering, whether we realize it consciously or not.


Chris said...

this is a great blog and i'm going to boldly break through the glass ceiling of comments, since no one else has yet.

was the renaissance's re-embrace of the human form in itself (rather than its symbolic functions) in art an inevitable, several-hundred-years-too-late consequence of the twinning of christianity with the platonic (and by extension, greco-roman) tradition?

and isn't it surprising that the influx of knowledge from the Islamic world into the West that drove so much of the renaissance resulted in an artistic flowering that ran directly against the grain of the Islamic artistic tradition? why didn't renaissance painters get into geometric/abstract designs instead of fat booty? never mind, maybe don't answer that last one

Andrew said...

Anna! Hello again from the lands of north Berkeley/Oakland just down the street from the Mormons...
Just got the link to this new blog, and have to say it rates with the last one -- I'll keep reading!
But this last entry prompts me to say: My Name Is Red, by Orhan Pamuk -- likely, being you, you've read it, but if not, this entry calls its name, as the book is set in Istanbul among miniature artists (painters of illustrated books of miniatures, not tiny palette-wielders) who are just learning of the figurative painting being done not too far to the north in Renaissance Italy. Lovely in its depiction of 1600s Istanbul, the novel tackles many things, but among them this question of the painting of forms, human and other, and the notion of crafting images that represent life as closely as possible. Fantastic reading...

Anna Ziajka said...

Chris N.: Yeah, I agree that the Renaissance's love for the human form resulted at least in part from everyone going Plato-crazy and wanting to imitate all things Greco-Roman, including of course the beautifully voluptuous marble nudes those guys left behind. After all, who wouldn't want a bunch of extremely attractive naked people with flawless skin hanging around their house? But then again, that's all they were, just prettier-than-life representations of larger-than-life characters: gods, goddesses, heroes, nymphs, etc. I think that it was thanks to the tradition of European religious iconography that preceded the Renaissance--iconography that stressed the symbolic value of the human form rather than just its superficial qualities--that Ren. artists recognized the potential of art to do more with the human form than just celebrate its beauty.

Definitely interesting that Europe absorbed so much from the Islamic world and yet went down such a different path with it. I'm sure plenty of eminent scholars have tackled that one, but maybe I'll have an un-eminent go at it in some future post.

Glad you're still reading, and thanks for the (and especially debate!) is always welcome :)


Anna Ziajka said...

Andy: Thanks for the comment, and good to hear from you! How is everything at HRS these days? I drove by last summer when I was home and it looks so different I almost didn't recognize it.

I haven't read My Name Is Red, though it currently occupies a prime spot on my (rather lengthy) to-read list. I read Snow a couple years back and am still haunted by its splendidly bleak imagery and the seeming effortlessness with which it conjures tortured souls out of the frozen Turkish countryside.

I heard Pamuk speak in NYC last year and he was fantastic: warm, funny, ironic, and wise.