Bulgakov’s Theological Defense of Western Religious Art

by Roberto J. De La Noval | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Română | Русский | Српски

Hans Holbein, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb

“Since the time of the Renaissance, the religious painting of the West has been one massive untruth.” So wrote Fr. Pavel Florensky in his Iconostasis, one of the most important works of 20th century Orthodox iconology. The heart of Western religious painting’s “untruth” was its naturalism, understood as the attempt to depict figures and scenes in as life-like a manner as possible. As Evan Freeman has shown, theological critique of Western naturalism was a staple of late 19th and early 20th century Orthodox reflections on the icon that elevated Eastern iconography in order to diminish Western religious art.

However, if we turn to the theological reflections on art offered by Florensky’s erstwhile disciple, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, we find an outlier to this dominant trend. For in the course of his lengthy 1930 essay Icons and Their Veneration, Bulgakov does not shy away from linking, linguistically and so also conceptually, artistic production as a whole with the idea of the icon, so as to ground his broader argument that the condition for the possibility of the theological icon lies in the fundamental iconicity of the cosmos, in the latter’s transparency to the ideal proto-images of being that reside in the mind of God and that grant actuality to the flesh of the world. Thus all art that succeeds in representing these ‘proto-images’ is iconic, though not every piece of religious art is a theological icon. Still, Bulgakov’s argument here places Western religious art and Eastern icons on a spectrum together, thereby relativizing the—nonetheless real—distinction between them.

Thus for Bulgakov the more pertinent theological question when considering religious art is who exactly is being depicted: is it Christ (or the saints) in the light of God’s deifying activity, or is it simply a historical figure or event associated with salvation history? Though Bulgakov concludes with Florensky that art which limits itself to the latter will fail to achieve what an icon accomplishes, he nonetheless accords Western religious art the merit of depicting Christ’s humanity, which is “portrayable as He is seen by men through various subjective prisms.” Yet Christ is no mere man. To that extent, therefore, Western religious art with its naturalism cannot fully depict him; only the “ideal realism” of the icon, which communicates supra-mundane reality through its abstract schematism, proves adequate to the task of elevating the human gaze to the divine-humanity of Christ and the saints in glory. And so we see that Bulgakov would have heartily agreed with Florensky’s judgment in Iconostasis that “icon-painting visually manifests the metaphysical reality that it depicts.”

Yet this was not Bulgakov’s final word on icons and Western religious art. Paradoxically, it was this very same idea of Florensky’s that led Bulgakov, near the end of his life, to write a theological defense of the naturalism of Western religious art—but only in depictions of Christ’s dying and death. The explanation for this shift lies in biography: in Bulgakov’s own experience of dying without ever reaching death, and in the transfiguring encounter with the dying Christ that occurred for him in the midst of it. According to the account given in his 1939 essay, “The Sophiology of Death,” after his operations for throat cancer Bulgakov remained for a time in limbo between life and death, suffering under an overall paralysis of his intellectual, emotional, and physical vitality. He called this state a “dying without death,” for unlike his 1926 near-death experience, in which he was granted a glorious vision of the post-mortem state, Bulgakov in 1939 knew instead only darkness, dying, and divine-abandonment. “I knew Christ in my dying, his nearness was palpable for me, almost bodily, but . . . it was the bodily nearness of a ‘corpse injured and bruised’ lying beside me [Isaiah 53:5].” To Bulgakov’s surprise, the image of the Savior that sustained him in those days was Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. Whereas previously he had seen in this image nothing more than blasphemy, now he understood that only its naturalism, and not iconographic depictions of Christ’s dying and death, could communicate the reality of the divine-abandonment that Bulgakov was undergoing and that Christ had assumed in his co-dying with humanity.

Bulgakov’s defense of the theological suitability of Holbein’s image flows from his understanding of Christ’s divine-abandonment on the cross as the most extreme moment of divine kenosis. In this climactic event the divine nature ceases its activity on Christ’s human nature (though without severing the indissoluble hypostatic union) in order to allow the process of dying both to begin and to reach its terminus. To depict such a moment, then, is to depict not Christ’s divine-humanity—which is the proper domain of iconography—but instead Christ’s abandoned humanity, left to die without the palpability and action of the life-creating Spirit.

It is easy to misunderstand Bulgakov’s point here and to think that he has reversed his former convictions on the limitations of Western religious art. Quite the opposite: in his affirmation of the theological appropriateness and spiritual usefulness of the grotesque and gruesome naturalism of Holbein’s art, Bulgakov argues that it is only because it is not iconic that a painting like Holbein’s can “visually manifest the metaphysical reality that it depicts,” namely divine absence. In his own dying, and in the naturalism of Holbein’s vision, Bulgakov discerned “that horrible truth of human dying,” and this personal revelation broke open his understanding of which metaphysical realities in fact lie within the reach of Western religious art, and of what that art may reveal about the God who emptied himself, even to the point of the cross.

“[A]nd to him to whom it was once granted to come to know co-dying with Christ, it is no longer possible to bypass this truth to which art testifies and instead to prefer sentimentally embellished depictions, just as it is also impossible to prefer iconographic patterns with their abstract conventions of theologoumena, which lack any anthropological data. Icons exist for theologically meditative prayer, and religious art for human comprehension. . .”

*All translations from Russian into English are the author’s, except for translations from The Icon and Its Veneration, which is translated by Boris Jakim, 2012.

Roberto J. De La Noval teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame.

For more on Bulgakov and his legacy, please consider joining us for a live-streamed conference, “Building the House of Wisdom: Sergii Bulgakov—150 Years after His Birth,” September 2-4, co-sponsored by the University of Fribourg, the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University, and the Volos Academy for Theological Studies, under the patronage of Rowan Williams.