Academic journal article Cithara

Towards a Christian Aesthetics: An Eastern Orthodox Perspective1

Academic journal article Cithara

Towards a Christian Aesthetics: An Eastern Orthodox Perspective1

Article excerpt

In 1944, Dorothy Sayers published an article under the title "Towards a Christian Aesthetic" in which she observed that there was yet no "Christian aesthetic," "no Christian philosophy of the arts" (4). Since then there have been various attempts to work out a theory that explains the aesthetic experience that lies at the heart of Christian art.2 Some of the most promising of these have evolved from within Catholic (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jacques Maritain) or Protestant (Paul Tillich, Nicholas Wolterstorff, G. van der Leeuw) worldviews. The Eastern Orthodox perspective is distinctly less familiar. This is surprising given the rich, age-old, and almost uninterrupted tradition within the Eastern Church which draws on Late Antique pagan and Christian Neoplatonism, running through the Byzantine theology of the image in the Medieval period, and that continues into modem early twentieth-century Russian religious philosophy. In this essay I intend to highlight the contribution of this tradition by focusing on some ideas on the religious image developed by the Russian thinker Pavel Florensky (1883-1937) in the 1920s.

Florensky, a priest and an exceptionally gifted polymath, was executed in the purges of 1937. Thereafter, for decades to come, his writings remained little known both in the Soviet Union and abroad. Even though there has been a great renaissance in Florensky studies in the last several decades, his work is still not well integrated within the intellectual history of his time. This is most certainly the case with Florensky's aesthetical thought. I will argue in this article that Florensky's aesthetical position should be understood as a direct, critical response to contemporary formalism centering on the notion of "disinterested aesthetic attitude. " In his anti-formalist aesthetics, the Russian author explicitly draws on medieval Byzantine theology. This is well known. What is less appreciated is that he aligns himself with ideas from German Romantic aesthetics and also foreshadows later postmodern aesthetic theories. If this interpretation is accepted, Florensky's writings on the art of the icon can be recovered as a forgotten chapter in the vast debate on what I will call "an aesthetics of presence," i.e., the tradition of thought on the nature of presence in the image that goes back at least to the Romantics is taken up anew by postmodernism and is still alive in discussions unfolding against the background of the "pictorial tum" in the contemporary period. If Florensky has any concrete contribution to offer, it seems to me that it would lie in his bringing a typically Orthodox line of thought to the debate, which is missing at this stage.

In Part I of this article, I will consider the "disinterested aesthetic attitude," one of the basic but also much misunderstood notions of Western aesthetics. Part II will look at an alternative tradition, which takes seriously the dimension of presence at play in the work of art, especially religious art. The "aesthetics of presence," underlying much of German Romantic aesthetics as well as trends within postmodernism, implies that a disinterested attitude, as it has been understood by a line of later interpreters of Kant, is an impossibility. In Part III, I will consider the notion of aesthetic intuition (which, admittedly, does not amount to a "system") developed by Florensky at the beginning of the twentieth century that draws on a long tradition of Eastern Orthodox theological thought. For Florensky, all genuine art is symbolic, while the symbol is a "container" of presence. The Russian author's theory builds on a dialectical and antinomic understanding of the nature of presence by using the terminology of essence and energies established for Orthodoxy by St. Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth century. Ultimately, the symbol is the uncovering of the noumenon in the phenomenon, the presence of the transcendent in the immanent.

I. The Power of Images and the Failure of Aesthetics

In this article, I will examine the little-known Eastern Orthodox critique of traditional, Western aesthetics which was advanced by Florensky in the 1920s. …

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