Animation & Iconography

There is a charming story told about St. Bernadette, the Lourdes visionary. After the apparitions were well over, people wanted to know what Mary looked like, especially to construct a statue for the Grotto. She gave a sculptor as many details as she could remember, but the result dissatisfied her: “That is not Our Lady!” She was then brought all kinds of paintings – Our Lady of This and That, and whatnot. None of them matched her memory. Finally, she picked up a picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. “That is the Blessed Virgin!”

Our Lady of Perpetual Help

The “non-realism” of icons, at its root, is a sign of respect for the mystery of the holiness of the subject being depicted. It leaves something to the imagination, as if to say “it is impossible to depict the reality, you must go find it for yourself.” It is revelation through negation, perhaps what we could call a “weak apophatic” mysticism. The medium also allows for one to emphasize certain features of a subject as a symbol.

Icons are never “drawn” or “painted,” they are always “written,” like a word. The goal is not to capture the reality so much as it is to start one down the right path to a real encounter with the subject, and ultimately with God. There is great value in this. We would find it odd to have a devotional picture of someone posing as the Blessed Mother… We do not find it odd to have an icon, which is “less realistic” but is still somehow much more accurate, as St. Bernadette would affirm.

One might call to mind many scriptural corollaries to this – the ubiquitous treatment of “seeing God” as difficult or impossible, the veil over Moses’ face, the gradual progression from Law to Spirit… And, if you pay close attention to the Gospels, almost no miracle of Christ takes place in direct visibility – it’s always in the midst of chaos, in a storm, in a cloud, inside a body, etc. This is why a scene like this – while well done in other ways – might feel a little “off”:

If this is what His miracles looked like, He may as well have flown around Jerusalem (Mt. 4: 5-7) and been done with it.

This whole issue of the delicacy of mystical imagery is particularly poignant in film, where actual people who we know are not “real” become stand-ins: they do the walking, talking – all of it. Sometimes this is helpful. But no matter how good an actor or director is, you know that “this is not how it actually looked, and that’s not actually Jesus/Mary/etc.” If you want an “authentic picture,” you have to do more work in a way because you need to deconstruct what is being shown and then stick to a mostly shapeless image in your mind.

For these reasons, I want to suggest that the art of animation gets a largely undeserved bad rap, or is at least not given enough serious attention.

This is an absolutely wonderful bit from The Prince of Egypt. The film has a pretty killer soundtrack, but the step back from the “big orchestra” pieces here is particularly effective. The lyrics are a play off of the song which is sung by Moses and the Israelites after the crossing of the Red Sea. Most important, however, is the symbolic imagery – notice especially the moment at 0:38, as a type of the Crucifixion. All of this achieved through “a kid’s medium”… Still very moving, no?

Compare and contrast with the same scene from a live-action film (go to about 1:14:00):

Here is another example of religious animation done extremely well, telling the story of Bl. Joan of Aza giving birth to her son, St. Dominic:

This short wouldn’t work nearly as well if it weren’t animated. Think about it. There’s an ethereal character to it that allows for the strange to be beautiful in a way that live-action characters would render impossible. (It would end up looking more like this, which wouldn’t seem right.)

These are just a few examples. But it is clear that the “unreal” can achieve certain goods that the “real” can’t, especially with spiritual realities which are distant (or “unreal”) to our intuitions.

In art class in elementary school, we often thought the goal of painting, drawing, etc. was to make the work look as similar to the subject as possible. Maybe this attitude never quite left some of us. And maybe it’s time it did, especially if we are using art to evangelize or catechize.


Post by: Eamonn Clark