Classical Sacred Art Versus Contemporary Realist Portraiture

As time passes, we are witnessing various revivals in the realm of the arts, sacred or otherwise, which see seemingly long forgotten classical styles and approaches being re-appropriated for use once again. One such area is in the domain of painting where a naturalistic and representational style is seeing something of a resurgence -- however humble.

"Quebec" by Adam Miller. Painted in 2017 for the 400th anniversary of the Canadian province. (Source: Macleans)
This revival is a welcome development for the classical traditions of art have fed the hearts and minds of countless souls down the centuries and deserve a continued pride of place today.

In the realm of sacred art this classical revival is particularly welcome given the important role that art has to play in vesting the sacred liturgy in forms that are noble, beautiful and comprehensible. This isn't to say that there cannot be 'modern' styles that cannot also accomplish this as well; far from it. The various explorations made over the years into the "Other Modern" have more than sufficiently demonstrated this potential. No, it is simply to welcome back a form and a tradition that has long held a place in both high culture and even within popular culture.

That said, this revival does not come without certain caveats. Just as we shouldn't assume that anything modern is incapable of properly expressing the sacred, neither should we assume that anything 'realist' necessarily does either. In the realm of sacred art, one is struck by the fact that we see various examples of realist work being done today that might well have religious subject matter but which do not strike one as being particularly 'sacred' in character.  These works may obviously exhibit the technical skill of the artist, producing an incredibly realistic bit of portraiture, but as sacred works they somehow seem to fall short, leaving one with a feeling of dissatisfaction, even discomfort and awkwardness

The question naturally arises therefore, why does one work succeed and another not? What marks the difference?

Generally speaking I believe naturalistic, representational art can have two manifestations. One is more literally naturalistic and representational, intent on capturing the particular physical features and characteristics of the person or model in question within an unidealized, almost photographic realism.  The second approach is also representational but does not aim for this type of hyperrealism but rather intends to convey something more stylized and idealized. It's intent is not so much to present an utterly realistic representation of a particular figure or person as it is to also represent an idea. It is within this latter approach that I would place sacred art proper.

It would seem that sacred art precisely avoids being too realistic, too naturalistic or too familiar. In fact, we see this type of approach manifest not only in sacred art, but also in examples of secular art, particularly those depicting the second estate (i.e. the nobility or its modern financial or political equivalent). This is hardly a surprise, given both the historical complementarity and competitiveness that could exist between those two estates. In this sort of stylistic approach there is an iconic aspect to the representationalism; it is naturalistic but tempered and augmented by an iconographical quality that moves it away from the category of the too familiar and into the category of 'the other.'

By contrast, what would seem to cause the dissatisfaction or discomfort we sometimes feel in the face of some religious art of the contemporary-realist idiom is the lack of this iconic quality.  Instead, it approaches these subjects in a way that is less iconographic than it is photographic. This has a secondary effect of removing this quality of otherness, making the subject overly familiar, even mundane. We are left with the sense, not of coming into contact with saintly and otherworldly persons, but rather of coming into contact with a particular human actor who is modelling for the role in question.

As a point of comparison, compare the more idealized and stylized features of the portrait of the Madonna and Child on the left to that on the right, a contemporary realist portrait. 

A further detail of the faces found within two paintings highlight the two different approaches
Here, also, is an example, of two portraits of Presidents of the United States which demonstrate this same difference of approach.


In our approach to a revival of contemporary, representational, sacred art then, I would propose that it is important to re-acquaint ourselves with and re-adopt this stylized, iconic approach.
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