18 August 2009

Manuel Chrysoloras on the Imagination & Art

I’m dealing with questions about the imagination in my thesis, and I thought this was an interesting statement by Manuel Chrysoloras (1355-1415), ‘the first man to give regular lectures on Greek in Italy’ (L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, Scribes & Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek & Latin Literature, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford U, 1974), p. 131. Writing from Rome in 1411, Chrysoloras answers the question, ‘What is the reason we admire an artistic representation more than the thing itself?’ (Epist. 3., PG 156, 57; in Cyril Mango, trans., The Art of the Byzantine Empire, 312-1453: Sources and Documents [Englewood Cliffs, NY: Prentice Hall, 1972], p. 255):

‘It is that in images we are admiring the beauty not of bodies, but of the maker’s mind. For, as it happens with well-molded wax, he receives through his eyes an image (typos) onto the imaginative part of his soul (to phantastikon tês psychês) and then imprints it on stone, wood, bronze or on pigments; for just as every man’s soul disposes its body (which has many weaknesses) in such a way that its disposition—be it sorrow, joy or anger—is visible in the body; so does the artist by means of artful simulation fashion the stubborn and hard substance of stone, bronze or pigments—a substance that is alien and unrelated—and makes the emotions of the soul visible in these [materials].’


St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

I'm fairly new to your blog and would take great delight in reading more on this theme. Imagination is a term freighted with so much baggage - often dismissed as delusion/prelest, in line with certain OT prophetic notions of the "imagination of the heart." And yet, it may also be related to notions of sanctified vision - apprehending the cosmos rightly. Perhaps that resonates with Chrysolaras' notion of perceiving the mind of the Maker with the imaginative part of the soul. I've occasionally heard Fr Anthony Ugolnik touch on this theme. And also the Methodist NT scholar Richard Hays. God bless you in your work!

Aaron Taylor said...

Sorry, St Matthew (if that IS your real name!), I'm really busy this week. But I haven't forgotten you and I'm planning to respond!

St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

Please forgive my anonymity - our church website is done through blogger, so the church name shows up on our google account. I'm indebted to my Duke classmate Lee Webb for introducing me to your site, which is a great joy to peruse.

In Christ's Peace,
Fr Mark

Aaron Taylor said...

Bless, Father,

Glad to have a name! Thank you for your kind words. Lee's a good friend, and it's good to find out we share him.

I'll put up a little chapter from my thesis on the imagination soon (maybe the next couple of weeks), so hopefully that will satisfy you! In short, I agree that imagination should not be simply identified with delusion or prelest. It's important to note that the Fathers merely say that it can be used for this purpose, but that it can also be used for innocuous purposes like solving problems or creating things. I do think that as Orthodox we have to be careful not to follow the Romantic tendency to deify the imagination, associating it directly with the imago dei or celebrating it as some kind of higher spiritual faculty. The clear sense one gets from the Fathers is that it is a mental tool, and one that is unfortunately easy prey for temptation and deception.

I know Fr Ugolnik's work, but I'd be very interested in following up on anything Hays has to say about imagination. I've read a bit of his Moral Vision of the NT (and posted on it here as well!), and I'd love to acquire a copy and read it through!

Kissing Your Right Hand,

St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

I was privileged to be in one of Prof. Hays' classes while he was working on Moral Vision. It's probably been a decade since I've picked up my copy, but it is a rich study worthy of reflection. His earlier work, Echoes of Scripture, is magnificent.

I see that he's recently published a collection of essays entitled "Conversion of the Imagination;" parts are available on google books. And it's fascinating that in the introduction he cites Origen's concern with the "remaking of the minds" of Gentile converts so that they could apprehend Israel's Scriptures as their own.

I appreciate your admonition regarding Romanticism; I think that's a dangerous trap for some converts to Orthodoxy who have walked a particular pathway through Anglo-Catholicism (I know this from my own stumblings). And looking forward to seeing some of your thesis! - Fr Mark