It has been argued that the course of Western art was set in AD 787 when the Second Council of Nicaea decided to raise the ban on the making of holy images, reversing the decision of the iconoclastic Council of Hieria in AD 754. The decision was made on the argument that as God had taken on fleshly human form and become visible in Christ it pleased him that this image should be communicated through art. Thus the Christian church distinguished itself from the Jewish faith and from Islam, where iconoclasm prevailed on the argument that God was in His essence invisible. Thus began the great tradition of icons and holy images which formed the foundation of Western art until quite recently. The close correlation between art and faith weakened with the Enlightenment and the materialistic attitudes that accompanied the scientific revolution, so much so that by now any close connection between Christian worship and art is to be counted as an exception.
The Enlightenment made a new distinction, separating the true, the beautiful and the good. Truth was allocated to science, beauty was relegated to art museums, and faith to the churches. Thus a division was made between aesthetic and religious experience on the one hand, and between scientific and religious truth on the other.
This division became confused in the latter half of the twentieth century when many came to doubt the claim to truth made by science and technology, as well as the claims of art to set general standards of beauty. It is now admitted that science rests on metaphors and the very definition of a scientific hypothesis requires that it can be disproven. In our age, absolute truth can only be taken as an article of faith. At the same time, absolute standards of beauty in art have been replaced by a culture of interpretation and research so that art museum, originally set up as temples to beauty, have now become sites for interpretation, research and communication. Meanwhile, art has carved out a space away from the traditional institutional context to provide a field for aesthetic experience based not on prescribed standards of beauty but rather on a perception of truth that does not reside in any generalising proclamation, being instead an experience having to do with time – an event rather than a fact. Within philosophy, such ideas belong to the fields of ontology and phenomenology.
The work Leiðsla by Ólöf Nordal is a good example of this development in contemporary art. Her work returns to the origin of all aesthetic experience, to the realm of the church and “the sacred” which, according to the iconoclasts, was invisible. It also mines our literary heritage, using a fragment of a psalm that conveys the experience, known to all artists, that raises man beyond his biological state of existence to the transcendental realm where he can in truth become human despite the meagre worldly means with which he has been provided. The verse by the poet Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614–1674) pleads that his language may serve him to convey the image of the crucified Christ to his people, an image that modern hermeneutics interpret as a metaphor for kenosis, the event when the invisible word, logos, embodied in human flesh, perfects its material existence through the natural inevitability of death.
The casts of the faces of the congregation of Hallgrímskirkja have reference to the whole of this tradition. Ever since Christ bid farewell to his followers at Golgotha, his congregation has returned to this embodiment of the logos that secularised itself by becoming visible and submitting to the laws of nature. If Christ was the embodied and visible image of God, is his congregation then, in its humble efforts, not the evocation of the Christian principle in which is hidden the face of the invisible logos – the word that became flesh and then became an image?
The verse – sung by this same congregation, each with his own intonation to a melody by Jón Nordal – not only lend the text of the prayer and temporal dimension but also intensifies our temporal experience of the artwork – an artwork that is not an object but an event, not an aesthetic construction based on some given aesthetic prescription, but a work that the members of the congregation itself have created along with the artists by lending their faces and voices to it. This work is not an object, made to be enjoyed with “disinterested pleasure” – as the proponents of absolute aesthetic standards would have it – but requires that enter into it as an event that is transformed into an “ecstasy” that allows us to transcend the existential limits which bio-physical science would set to man.
Translation: Jón Proppé