Radiant Truth - How the Thomism of Fr Norris Clarke Explains The Style of Holy Icons


'For with You is the fountain of life, and in Your Light, we shall see light.' 

Many readers of this blog will be familiar, I'm sure, with the idea that there is a theology that is used to explain the stylistic elements of the iconographic liturgical art. However, I am not aware of a metaphysics or philosophical anthropology that has been or could be used to articulate a philosophy of icons.

That is, until recently.

A couple of years ago, on the recommendation of a Dominican friar here in Berkeley, I read two works of the late Jesuit philosopher, Fr Norris Clarke. These were Person and Being, and The One and the Many - A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics. You can see an interview with him shortly before his death in 2008, here, on YouTube in which he talks about his 'personalist' Thomism.

More recently, I sat in on a series of excellent lectures on the thought of Fr Clarke as part of a class on the philosophy of nature and philosophical anthropology, taught by Dr. Michel Accad for Pontifex University's Master of Sacred Arts program. Dr. Accad had invited me to attend so that I might participate by discussing with him why an understanding of philosophy is important for artists today.

There are, incidentally, a number of general reasons why such a class would be included in a sacred arts program - for example, the simple fact that an understanding of the human person and nature is always important for an artist who is seeking to reveal both invisible and visible truths about both through art. However, it occurred to me as I listened and reflected on the subject that Fr Clarke's Thomistic philosophy, in particular, might be the basis for a philosophy of icons. I offer my thoughts on this as some personal speculation for your interest.

We will start with a brief account of some of the ways in which theology has been used to explain the style of icons.

Take a look at this icon of the Transfiguration,

...we see Christ shining with light. This is understood to be a glimpse given to the Apostles of his heavenly glory. That glory, which is the radiance of his being, is the radiating of an uncreated 'light of being', the divine light of the burning bush, that shone without consuming the bush itself. Saints, who through baptism and lives of purity participate in the divine nature shine with this light too; and in their purity are able to see in ways that we can only grasp 'through a glass darkly'. This radiance is represented by the halo of light around their heads. Another indication that each figure is a source of light is indicated by the fact that none have cast shadows.

Even the apostles, who are not shown with halos (indicating that this event is prior to Pentecost when the fire of the Holy Spirit came to them) are nevertheless shown without cast shadows. This reflects the fact that in some way and at this moment, they must have been at least temporarily purified. For only the 'pure in heart' who are themselves participating in the divine nature can see the divine light. Even so, the power of such a vision to those who are unused to seeing it has knocked them back as we can see!

There are other stylistic elements that reflect truths about the objects portrayed that are not ordinarily visible. So there is a hierarchy of being in which Christ is greatest, mankind is next and inanimate beings come next. This is reflected visually by having Christ the most prominent figure amongst the six, through the design - and his size and brightness and the way in which his image relates to the other people in the composition. The mountain, on the other hand, is small relative to its natural size. In some icons, plants and mountains will be depicted actually bowing to Christ to communicate this point.

While the discussion so far relates to visible light, which is the only way that an artist working in a visual medium can portray such radiance, the light he is portraying is not in fact limited to visual light or even to electromagnetic radiation. This radiance is of a divine, uncreated supernatural 'light' that is visible to the purified 'spiritual eye', the place inside us where we see, so to speak, truth, and are connected to God. This is the 'spirit' of the Pauline anthropology (body, soul, spirit), which Stratford Caldecott, for example, equated with the intellectus of the Western medievals, and the nous of the Eastern Fathers, see here.

So how can philosophy account for this? First, it is worth describing the work of Fr Norris Clarke who is a philosopher in the true sense. He develops his own original thought, still working in the Thomistic tradition. Dr. Accad was kind enough to give me a summary of the salient points.

He wrote:

'I agree, that the work of Fr. Norris Clarke (which we cover at the end of the course, as a kind of summary and integration of everything we have learned) is likely to provide a helpful framework. Here are some of the points that Fr. Clarke distills from St. Thomas’ metaphysics (and to which he adds insights from modern “personalist” philosophy):

'The universe is an immense family of real beings, and all real beings—from the simplest drop of water to the human person—have something in common: They all exist! In technical terms, all real beings share in the act of existence. What’s more, we are all intimately connected with the source of our existence, God, who is existent in Himself (“I am who am”)

'Although all created beings share in the act of existence, each being is limited by an essence: A dog is a share of existence possessed—and limited by—the essence of “dogginess” and an oak tree is a share of existence possessed and limited by the essence of “oakiness”. God, of course, is unlimited, infinite being. According to St. Thomas, His essence is existence.

'Because created being are all finite and limited by essence, we each have something to receive from the rest of the family of beings, but we each also have something to contribute to other beings. All beings are constantly communicating of themselves to others and receiving from others to complete and perfect themselves.

'For example, even a simple pebble communicates its own existence to the rest of the world. Modern science acknowledges that: For one thing, by its existence, the pebble contributes materially to the gravitational field of the planet—even if in a most modest way. Without that gravitational field, we would all be floating about in the ether, getting evermore separated from one another!

'Because to be real is to be giving and to be receiving, we are all substances in relation. This is particularly true in the higher beings, like animals and humans who are constantly giving and receiving from one another, but it is even true at the lowest level. Water, for example, is molecular beings that are in relation with one another. Each molecule of H2O gives of itself to its neighbor and receives the actions of its neighboring molecules. The consequence this mutual interaction is a community of molecular beings that has the property of being clear, liquid, and life-sustaining for all living organisms!

'Clarke’s rendition of Thomistic metaphysics describes a wonderful community of beings, each of which, in its own way, reflects, refracts, and radiates the light of the Creator to all other beings.'

Man, of course, occupies a special place in the universe. Being at once a spirit united to a material body, he is an “amphibian” straddling the world of angels and that of earthly creatures. Because he possesses and intellectual nature that allows him to form civilizations, he leads creation on its journey back to the Creator. And, as spirit, man is also person: individually distinct and self-possessing and capable of living in self-conscious and self-determining community with others, in the image of the community of Divine Persons.

I do not know if Fr Clarke himself ever connected his ideas to the theology of the icon, but the parallels seem clear. He is describing this radiance of being in ways that are compatible with the uncreated light of being referred to by the theologians of the past, and which is manifested visually in the icon.

As I read Fr Clarke's books, this picture of being as an activity, a static dynamism in which each is giving and receiving of itself superabundantly (that is without depletion) reminds me of the dynamic of love described by Benedict XVI is his encyclicals. Benedict talks of love as simultaneous actions of self-gift and ordered reception of persons in relation, terming them agape, and eros respectively. I have written about this here.

Also, Clarke's philosophy helps me to understand something about the nature of beauty itself, which is sometimes defined as the 'radiance of being'. Beauty is an objective quality, that is, it is as an aspect of the thing considered beautiful; and in the full perception of its existence we, the subjects observing it, delight in it. But beauty has, nevertheless, a subjective component, for different subjects will have differing abilities to 'see', that is to apprehend, the incident 'light' of being emanating from the object.

I finish with an affirmation from the greatest school of theology and of life and all, that is, the liturgy. Light and life are connected in the hymn in the Eastern Rite called the Great Doxology. It opens with the proclamation, 'Glory to You, O Giver of light!' This is the divine light which we all participate in through our existence, which as human beings incorporates life, and which we possess in the fullness of our capabilities by partaking of the divine nature as baptized Christians. The connection is made explicitly later in this same hymn with the words: 'For with You is the fountain of life, and in Your Light, we shall see light.' 

The fountain of life!

What is this if not the self-effusive activity of being made all the more resplendent with the supernatural gift of life by which we relate to each other and with God in love in, at its consummation, the liturgy?

As an aside: in the Mandylion above, which I painted, I was told that the rounded brow that sits in the V between the eyebrows can be thought of as the 'spirit' or the 'spiritual eye' of the person that 'sees Light'.

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A New Blog on Catholic Culture and Beauty by Pontifex U. Professor, Dr Carrie Gress

A New Blog on Catholic Culture and Beauty by Pontifex U. Professor, Dr Carrie Gress

Carrie Gress is at once a mother, journalist and writer, and a philosopher who specializes in beauty and aesthetics and studied Jacques Maritain for her doctorate.With such a wide range of interests, all of which are integrated with her faith, I would say she was a Renaissance lady if I wasn't somewhat negative on Renaissance culture! So, how about baroque lady instead?