Wednesday, February 13, 2013

When Saints Are Both Things

Once again, let’s talk saints and the horrible ends they met.

via wikipaintings
Not long after I posted about ol Captain Flaps — and considerably longer after I posted about St. Agatha’s boob plate, St Lucy’s disarming stares and the cephalophore — I received a letter from a reader who brought up a good point. Why are saints depicted as both things? Here, read:
so, I know I'm the art historian whatever, but you're the recovering large-c Catholic (you never recover from being a small-c catholic, it's too all-permeating) so maybe you know:

why are saints depicted as both things?

like, why does st bart hold his skin but also, mostly, has skin? and why does st lucy have eyes, and also hold her own eyes? it's not like cephalophores (you know, those fish they thought were extinct)(ahem. head-bearers.) have a head...and also a head to carry. There's clearly no leaning away from gore in Catholic iconography, so what gives? why the hesitation?
I hadn’t thought about it, and I lack the background in art history to give a definitive answer. But I could take some guesses. My response:
You bring up a good point that I had considered but which I have no good reason for. It doesn't really lend itself to Googling -- believe me, I tried -- so I can only offer you this.

On one hand, Catholics believe that losing, like, a limb in life doesn't mean you'll be an amputee in heaven, so it's possible that this artistic meme results from the belief that the martyr, having ascended into heaven, gets back the things the lost on earth -- eyes, skin, boobs, nose (probably there's one this happened to) -- but they're proud of their martyrdom and so they're showing off their lost body part like it's a kind of trophy.

My other guess, which seems less likely to be true, is that some people just weren't good at depicting the insides of bodies and therefore just didn't. But this wouldn't account for, say, a lack of breasts, which doesn't seem that hard. And let's face it: Most of the people living in these eras probably did see bodies torn apart, since that was reality TV back then, to say nothing from the constant farm accidents that I imagine claimed ranch hands of yore left and right.

Surprise third guess that I just thought of: Perhaps certain depictions were not meant to be gory, or would be posted in a location where gore would have been unacceptable -- like a children's room??? -- and they therefore did a sanitized version of the dead saint, so as not to offend. The cephalophore, conversely, would have been shown in a place where a decapitated person would have been, like, fun and edgy.

Do any of these seem reasonable?
Now what do you think? I’m genuinely curious if there’s consensus about this. I mean, I suppose it makes about as much sense to show St. Bartholomew simultaneously with and without his skin as it does to pose St. Sebastian (pictured above) like he’s a gay pin-up despite being punctured by arrows. (That takes quite a bit of composure, really.) But clearly the artists made some aesthetic decisions, and they must have had reasons for making them.

2 comments:

  1. I don't know about Catholicism, but in Eastern Orthodox, the point is often made that the super-flat style of iconography is meant to show the saints in their glory, not in their earthly condition. Hence the perspective is reversed, people glow with inner illumination, saints have halos, the infant Jesus looks like a very short full grown man, etc. Catholicism adopted a more realistic art-style in the Renaissance, but I imagine a lot of the theoretical aspects of the art are similar.

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    1. How interesting. I like learning about the motivations behind an old artistic style as opposed how modern-day eyes read them. It's so counter-interuitive to think about a flatter depiction being more honorary.

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