I recently found a few remarkable images of memorable Star Wars scenes crafted by Thai artist Chawakarn Khongprasert entitled Star Wars in Medieval Manuscript. These images stood out to me not because of the quality of the art itself, albeit the images are exceptional, nor even due to the ironic blending of pop culture subjects with traditional Christian artistic forms which I so often enjoy. These particular images reminded me of not just any presentations of Medieval Christian art but rather of a very specific style of Medieval Christian art form, Eastern Christian iconography.
For readers not versed in the distinctions between Western and Eastern Christian styles of art, an iconic rendering of Jesus, Mary, or a saint might be dismissed as just another style of religious art. However, those who have studied Eastern Christian iconography would point out how this particular form (the icon) is not only viewed (within Eastern Christian communities) as a mode of representation of sacred stories but it is also believed to be in its very viewing and creation an act of religious devotion.
Here is an example of how one traditional Christian scene has been rendered in a classic Western Christian style (The Crucifix by Grunewald) and then again as an Eastern Christian icon:
In Eastern Christian communities the creation of icons is a religious activity in and of itself (a type of artistic liturgy) and there are traditional characteristics evident in icons which are often interpreted as having theological and not just aesthetic value. Icons are often painted in a style that highlights the opposite of the Western Christian artistic rendering. Where the latter is concerned with rendering realistic proportions, natural gestures and postures, emotional expressions, dramatic angled lighting and shadow effects and anatomically believable (if somewhat grotesque) human bodies, the icon utilizes unnatural postures, stylized and disproportionate features, tempered and transfigured expressions, along with gold leaf (to symbolize the radiance coming from within the icon) to demonstrate that icons reflect not this world but another sacred dimension.
While Western (especially Catholic) Christians understood religious art forms, such as Grunewald’s The Crucifix, as a means to educate the illiterate masses (images acted as the Biblia Pauperum, literally the “Bible of the Poor”), the Eastern Christian Churches have viewed the religious role of the icon as so much more. While Western Christianity has a very prolific artistic history, there have been great theological battles over the use of images, which some Christians have deemed nothing less than idolatry. For the Eastern Church the icon is not an object of worship itself nor is it a mere form of artistic expression, it is interpreted rather a constant sign of the incarnation and spiritual transformation. As Solrunn Nes writes in The Mystical Language of Icons:
The icon is a piece of transformed matter with a sacramental character – a physical sign of a divine presence. During its production it has undergone a change. In this way the icon’s sacramental materiality may be a reminder of the change towards greater likeness with God (theosis) that marks the saints. (16)
Now I am not suggesting that these Star Wars images are icons, in content or form, nor am I certain that the artist was in any way cognizant of the type of religious function or meanings artistic renderings of such icons and their making constitute in Eastern Christian communities. However, I do find it fascinating that the artist chose this particular style of religious image fashioning (out of many traditional and more popular modes). Perhaps Star Wars iconography reflects another hidden and transcendent dimension… perhaps in a galaxy far, far, away.