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Bending Heaven Down to Earth

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The Medieval Icon

image of Religion and the Arts

This article sets out to rehabilitate the medieval icon as a visual paradigm, seeing it not as a primitive attempt at painterly perspective and the verisimilitude it sought to achieve, but as a sophisticated symbolic system with an entirely different intention, one that will be shown to share the apophatic nature of certain mystical texts. The “inverse perspective” that typifies the icon creates the impression of a figure actively gazing out of the frame at the viewer, calling him or her to witness an intention that is not depicted on the panel but that haunts it from an invisible dimension beyond. Seeing this intention requires the witness to move by means of contemplation beyond the pigment and egg-yolk of the panel toward the archetype. It is this movement that differentiates the icon from an idol, which presents the visible as a full presence with no exit onto alterity. Finally, I hope to show that this distinction between icon and idol is still relevant today, the apophatic movement of the icon providing a valid alternative to our post-modern saturation of visibility.

Affiliations: 1: American University of Sharjah

10.1163/15685292-01901001
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/content/journals/10.1163/15685292-01901001
2015-01-01
2018-07-23

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