In the iconoclasm controversy of the eighth century, the church debated the possibility of images in worship. The Eastern Church, challenged by the rise of Islam, with its total prohibition of religious imagery, worried that Christian imagery broke the commandment forbidding the making of graven images. The iconoclasts also argued that the only true presentation of Christ was the Eucharist and that a physical image could never represent the divine nature of Christ and was therefore heretical.
Meanwhile Pope Hadrian at the Second Council of Nicea (787) ruled in favor of icons. The iconodules countered that images were not to be forbidden. Strengthened by the teachings of John of Damascus, they argued that before the advent of Our Lord all imagery was forbidden because Christ, the image of the unseen God, was yet to come. Once Christ came the longing for an image was fulfilled. Other images are therefore desirable for Christian devotion because each image, in one way or another, points back to Christ, who is the ultimate image of the unseen God. Not only are images of Christ licit, but portrayals of his life, and images of his blessed mother, saints and angels are also to be encouraged for each one is a pointer to the ultimate image of Jesus Christ.
There is more to it: the iconoclasm controversy speaks not only about images in worship, but about the Christian’s relationship to the whole physical world. There is no room for a gnostic dualism which regards the physical world as impure or unworthy of some sort of pure and spiritual Christian unsoiled by the base physical world. By virtue of the incarnation, the physical world is redeemed. John of Damascus wrote, “I also venerate the matter through which salvation came to me, as if filled with divine energy and grace.” As Gerard Manly Hopkins writes, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” All of nature is caught up in the drama of redemption for as St Paul says, the whole of creation “groans for redemption” (Rom. 8:22). God’s providence is written through the whole fabric of his creation. Each moment of history, each human soul down to every sparrow that falls, and every hair on our heads is numbered and accounted for by the Almighty (Lk. 12:6-7).
The implications for art are therefore profound. There is no place in a Christian cosmology for the repudiation, indifference, or ignorance of art. If the physical world is redeemed by virtue of the incarnation, then art and all forms of imagery may be redeemed by virtue of Christ becoming the physical image (or ikon) of the unseen God. Indeed, it can be argued that not only are sacred images (and by extension secular art) permissible, but they are unavoidable, and if unavoidable then mandatory. Art is irresistible and even demanded of humanity because through art man fulfills a crucial aspect of his divine nature. J.R.R. Tolkien recognized the artist as ‘sub-creator’—living out the image of the Creator God in whose image he is himself created.
What does this say about the comparatively modern art form of film? There are several considerations: first of all, because we often take film for granted we often fall into the trap of forgetting just how stupendous this art form really is. Through the miracle of technology we can create and manipulate not just the visual image, but a visual image that moves in real time. With this technology we no longer simply picture the natural world, nor do we merely devise a drama and act it out, but the image through photography is as close to reality as any image can be. The drama is swept from the artificiality of the stage into practically any scene, time and setting—both imaginary and real—that one can imagine. In addition to the actors moving, the camera moves and takes us more deeply in, around and through the moving images. Furthermore, with special effects, sound and music, that moving drama can come to life and thrill us and touch our emotions in more powerful ways than any of our ancestors ever dreamed possible.
If artistic imagery is the imitation of life, then film allows for the most dynamic imitation of life imaginable. This is imagery that is visual, interactive, aural, dramatic, emotional, intellectual, and visceral in one total artistic experience. Therefore the artistic potential of film is overwhelming; and, because it is so ubiquitous and popular, its true potential is usually underestimated.
So firstly, the artistic potential of film, with its melding of technology and the different art forms, is a truly astounding development in the history of art. Secondly, the most successful film makers, like the most successful visual artists, use visual imagery to communicate directly to the emotions beyond ordinary verbal means of communication. A poor film communicates its message through words. With voice over or expository speeches by important characters the message is conveyed. A successful film uses imagery instead. Settings and scenes are seen. Characters’ backstories are communicated with visual clues scattered through the film. Emotions are communicated with intense close ups and the intelligent manipulation of plot, characters, imagery, music, and sound effects. As a result, the film experience is the most fully ‘incarnational’ of all the art forms. The successful film engages directly with the viewers’ emotions through the visual, aural, and active manifestations. This is visceral, subverbal communication. Not only is the message ‘incarnated’ in the film, but because its impact is subverbal and emotional, the message is also automatically ‘incarnated’ within the experience of the viewer. As a result the message of the film, and even its predominant themes may never be articulated or even be consciously perceived by the viewer.
In a successful film the various components combine to effect an artistic transaction between the viewer and the truths being communicated. The viewer ‘gets it’ through a cathartic process, not through discursive reasoning or a verbal sequence of argument or logic. In this respect the artistic experience is closer to ‘faith’ than reason. The viewer, like the person of faith, apprehends truth in a different, but no less valid method than the one who apprehends truth through a scientific or logical method.
While critics of religion (and by extension art) may dismiss the subjectivity of the artistic or religious experience, Monsignor Guissani has shown that the methodology of logical enquiry and that of religious or artistic enquiry are not so contradictory as some may think. Both the artistic and religious enquirer and the logical and scientific enquirer are confronted with mystery. Both are faced with a truth which is hidden, and a puzzle to be solved. Both seek to apprehend truth, and both embark on a quest to discover that truth in a methodical manner. Both the artistic/religious pilgrim and the logical/scientific pilgrim use the processes and linguistic tools of the human mind to go on their quest. Both seek to analyze and understand. Both experiment through trial and error to discover the truth. Both arrive at conclusions which are the sum and total of their questing experience, and the conclusion both come to in their own way is an experience of truth.
If this is so, then it sheds light on the process of producing and viewing films. If the artistic experience is one of a quest for truth and a process of discovery, then the more the truth is ‘hidden’ within an art form, the more satisfying that art form will be. Films (and all art for that matter) must be truth clothed. A painting or a film that preaches is not art. It is a sermon. Instead, art should incarnate truth—at once concealing and revealing the truth. With its amazing combined artistic power, film is the art form which has the most potential to completely and convincingly incarnate the truth.
If this is so, then we would expect this philosophy of film to be reflected in the method of the gospel. And so it is, for in the synoptic gospels we have what the scholars call the riddle of the ‘Messianic secret.’ Why does Jesus Christ tell those he has healed not to tell anyone? Why does he suddenly disappear into the mountains to be alone? Why does he reprimand the demons who blazon his true identity? Because the incarnation of our Lord is essentially a hidden manifestation. In the historically human form of Jesus Christ, God is both revealed and concealed. As the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, so within the art form of film the Word or the ‘message’ is most effective and dynamic when it ‘dwells among us.’ Film is most successful when the Truth is hidden—when it is enfleshed within the dramatic portrayals of real human experience. The veiling of truth within the dramatic experience that films provide is a further pointer not only to the ‘glory veiled’ of the incarnation, but the ‘glory veiled’ within the liturgy of the Church. The film viewer penetrates the art form not only to apprehend truth with verbal and logical facilities, but more importantly, with his emotional and spiritual apparatus. Likewise, the participant in the sacred mysteries of the church apprehends the Word of God communicated through the drama of the sacred liturgy and veiled within the outward forms of bread and wine. Like film, the liturgy is a kind of ‘moving picture.’ The whole liturgy is an icon of the risen and glorified Christ, and the whole liturgy moves forward so that the participants move in and through an experience to a deeper apprehension of Truth.
Finally, this intense incarnation of moving image in film not only reflects the mystery of the incarnation, and the mystery of the divine liturgy, but it also reflects the mystery of life in Christ. In 2 Corinthians, St. Paul meditates on the fact that the face of Moses had to be veiled because of the intense glory that radiated from him after his encounter with the divine presence. But we, St. Paul says, have encountered Christ, and therefore we must reflect his image with unveiled faces. In other words, as the image is incarnate, and the message enfleshed in film, our lives must also incarnate the Word which is Christ. We communicate the Word within us not only with words, but with our lives. We are called to be living and moving images of Christ (motion pictures if you like) as he is the image of the unseen God.
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Editor’s note: This essay is an abridged version of an essay that first published in the St. Austin Review.
*Photo by Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5886116r), Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Wilfred Hyde White, My Fair Lady – 1964