The “East” uses icons and despises statues while the West has no icons, or so goes the common myth. Closer inspection and study of holy images ad their history unsurprisingly reveals a far deeper and more complex truth.
I will state first that the stereotype of “Easterners” revering icons, contemplating them, and creating a mystical theology around them is a peculiarity of Byzantine Christianity and Byzantine Christianity alone. Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, and Syriac Christians have their own iconic “styles”, but nowhere to be found among them is the intentional abstraction of art style for the purpose of preventing the icons from being “lifelike”. These non-Byzantine Christians simply continue to make use of their peculiar art style that they had 1600 years ago. As un-“lifelike” as these may seem, they are merely a continuation of an art style that has been preserved in a time capsule.
Pictured above: Coptic, Armenian, Syrian, and Ethiopian iconography
Much like how, say, the Sacred Heart or Thomistic Theology is a peculiarity of the West, the rich theology of icons is one of the defining characteristics of Byzantine Christianity and is one born from a very chaotic beginning. To understand where the iconographic difference lies between the so-called “East” (however un-Eastern Byzantium is, relatively) and the West, one must look at where the divergence began. Many on both sides may be surprised that said divergence is two-sided.
In the first millennium of Christianity one would be hard pressed to find holy images more similar than in the cities of Rome and Constantinople. The shared culture, the strong political ties, and the trade ensured an unbroken (if occasionally strained) link existed between the two. Syria and Egypt fell to the infidel, Armenia and Assyria were cut off, while Gaul, Britain, and Iberia were overrun by barbarians; but Rome and Constantinople withstood it all to emerge as the cultural and ecclesiastical centers of the Mediterranean world. As two of the last places of the old empire to preserve significant portions of the culture, it is only natural that their religious art (as well as liturgy) should share many common elements. Below are three such mosaic icons from Constantinople, Croatia, and Rome itself.
While Rome under the pope preserved much of the old culture from being lost, the rest of the West absorbed the newly converted barbarians. One can see this reflected in religious art from the extremities of the Western Church’s lands, where there was some mixing among Latin, Celtic, Germanic, and even Moorish culture. Much of the resulting iconography looks less like that of the mother church than does the art of “New Rome” (demonstrated below with Irish and Spanish Mozarabic examples).
The beginning of the end of this “common culture” would come with Iconoclasm, a reaction to the overly-enthusiastic veneration of images in the Byzantine world (accounts of people spitting the Eucharist onto an image to “receive it from a saint” are one such example). The extremes of the Emperor who smashed images to prevent idolatry and the laity who had gone to far in their piety came to a head in the Second Council of Nicaea where the Iconophiles triumphed, but the abuses disappeared.
Studdite and Palamite monks would later develop a complex theology around the veneration of images that gradually evolve Byzantine iconography into its “mystical” state and has kept it there since. Whereas pre-Iconoclast Byzantine icons looked as they did because that was the prevalent art style, Byzantine icons of today are painted by a set of prescribed rules to keep them intentionally abstract.
In a West untouched by iconoclasm, art developed at a slow and gradual pace. Colors became brighter and more defined while the introduction of statues and wood carvings was merely an act to take religious imagery into a third dimension.
Despite these additions, the Western view of religious art had not changed. It did not exist for its own sake in an idolatrous way neither was there any monastic theology created around it. The images, be they two-dimensional or three, existed to aid the laity in putting their minds toward holy things. Stylistically, there had not really been any sort of “leap forward” or jolt, merely a continuation of existing tradition.
That, of course, would change with the Renaissance and the following Baroque era.
And using this particular image to illustrate the point is never going to get old.