Seeing In New Ways: a debate about art and iconography at Christmas

Yesterday, Katrina Fernandez posted a piece on the Patheos network entitled “ ‘Haute Spere’ Is a Hot Mess.” I stumbled across this post when Elizabeth Scalia, known online as The Anchoress, posted the link on Twitter. Ms. Fernandez posted a picture of a new installation at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. This piece, entitled “Haute Sphere,” is meant to evoke the Nativity scene through abstract shapes.

Fernandez expresses strong distaste for the piece and comments on its failings as compared to traditional icons of the Nativity. “With only the very basic figures present in the nativity icon, there is much to contemplate. More elaborate icons include Joseph being tempted by Satan, the shepherds, wise men, angels, and a star in the upper left corner with three rays for the Trinity. One could contemplate the mystery of His birth all year from a single Nativity icon. I would not waste five seconds gazing on Haute Sphere. Haute Sphere does not lift my mind to heaven or make me in awe of the Word Made Flesh.”

Ms. Fernandez is welcome to her opinions, and to like or dislike the work as she pleases. However, she has made a very significant error: art is not iconography. The two fields are informed and influenced by each other, but they are distinct. Iconography is created to invite contemplation of spiritual truths, to guide meditation and prayer. Art is, in Fernandez’ own words, “to convey meaning and express beauty.”

And the Haute Sphere is beautiful. A gold disc with an intricate pattern sits delicately balanced inside a white geodesic dome, lined with gold stars. The interior of the dome is lit and light bounces off the gold surfaces and spills out into the night, as if inviting the viewer to come inside.

What could be a better image of the Light coming into the world?

Ms. Fernandez believes the abstract nature of this piece is the most problematic part: “[it’s] last and most important failing is its complete disregard for the belief that man was created in the image of God, and that Christ was born in ourlikeness. When the likeness of Christ is removed and replaced with some abstract thing, the artist has removed the concrete visual reminder that God so loved us he humbly manifested as man for our salvation. Gone is an entire half of His duel nature. Christ was fully human and fully divine. Not fully 24-karat gold sphere and fully divine.” Again, if this piece were created as an icon, she would be correct. But it is not. Did St. John err in describing Christ as “the Light,” an abstract concept?

Art can take risks that iconography cannot. Icons must be correct and not misleading, lest they lead the viewer’s contemplation astray. Art has greater freedom (though it can also make bigger mistakes), and the artist of Haute Sphere has taken that freedom and attempted to show us the Light of the World in a new way.

The problem with iconography is that images may become too familiar. We have all seen hundreds of Nativity scenes, and it is difficult to see them clearly now: we glance at the image and think, “Oh, the Nativity, I know this one,” and move on. With effort, we may remember to sit and contemplate the image for a time, but most of us will pass it by without taking that time. After all, we know what the Nativity looks like, don’t we? Art strives to break through what is familiar and teach us to see things in a new way. When I saw the picture of “Haute Sphere,” my first reaction was, “Oh, that’s interesting, what is that?” Art allows us to approach the familiar with new eyes; through art, we become children again, looking at the world for the first time.

This installation may not lead to contemplation of incarnation or the Holy Family, as an icon of the Nativity would. But anyone who views it is certain to be struck by the beauty of a small unremarkable building holding a great treasure, and the depiction of Light shining out into a world that feels so very dark and cold.


[Note: more background about the creation of the “Haute Sphere” can be found in a video here.]

  • Fr. Christian Mathis

    This does look like a beautiful piece of art, but my concern would be that art which we (as Catholics-I cannot speak for others) place into our churches is primarily meant to help people enter into the worship itself and therefore it needs to be clear in its meaning. This piece of art is beautiful, but does not lend itself to being self explanatory. 

    Thanks for your insightful thoughts in this post.

  • Katrina Fernandez

    As a practicing Byz Cath and self taught iconographer I am aware of the distinction between art and iconography. If your first reaction to seeing the haute sphere was “oh, what is that?” than it’s failed it’s purpose as a Nativity- a representation of the Incarnation. 

    This is installed in a church, not a museum where it would be more appropriate. Fr. Mathis is correct when he replies that in places of worship the meaning needs to be clear. Stick this lovely bit of austerity elsewhere. 

  • Gladys Troika

    They really need to explain that the icon represents a bubble rising in the cosmic Pilsner glass of God’s beer. Pure, and full of cold-filtered Grace, we all rise towards heaven with each intoxicating and delicious sup.