Last week ArtWay posted a portrait series by Catherine Prescott, an oil painter who concentrates primarily on realistic renderings of human faces. Prescott, who had drawn portraits all her life, intended to pursue realism but found herself born in the wrong time period:

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Catherine Prescott: Daphne Holding Her Neck, 2015, oil on panel, 22,5 x 15 cm

By the mid twentieth century in America likeness was largely held in low regard, as leading artists sought a mythic presence through abstraction. When Catherine Prescott was studying art in the 1960’s, the category “art” had no real place for the kind of realism she was drawn too. Her skills as a draughtsman were readily acknowledged, but she was stymied by a lack of artistic options. A summer in graduate school, where realism was acceptable as long as it dispassionately transcribed photographs, convinced her she had no future in the American art world.

Resistance to realism isn’t new; even though the modern era lays claim to abstraction as expression, the fear of imagistic realism is as old as religion itself, best evidenced by the whacky and convoluted history of Christianity.

The rendering of realistic images has frequently been the creative red-headed step-child, particularly in the political sphere of expression, and therefore religion. As is widely known, the worship of and/or through Christian images sparked controversies (wars) throughout the history of the Church; but even in those circles in which images were generally considered good there existed political tensions, if, for example, the image in question wasn’t up to snuff stylistically: Gregory Melissenos, of the fifteenth century, said: “Although I do recognize Christ, I cannot even pray to him because I do not recognize the manner in which he is being depicted” (Belting 1).

ArtWay’s write-up references Hans Belting’s book, Likeness and Presence, in which Belting argues that before the “era of art” there existed an “era of images,” that portraiture was painted for reasons other than artistry, namely the power of the human image itself.

333Images have always existed for veneration, or at least to convey some sort of spiritual depth: “In our case [historically] they represent persons who cannot be seen because they are absent (the emperor) or invisible (God). If they were visible, veneration of their image would not be necessary.” Belting explains that the emperor, though absent, could always be present through pictures—as the regime in North Korea understands all too well. Images somehow have the power to make the absent present. “But for Christianity the depiction of the invisible God (though he may have become visible in Jesus) posed a problem that escalated in the conflict over iconoclasm and taxed the minds of theologians for a century” (Belting 41). Longer than a century, I’d say, as we still squabble about the value of images in the Church today.

There’s something about images that maintains a powerful grip on the human heart, whether it be to spark the idea that this image has the power to make it rain—or whether it simply be to catch the eye of the casual Mockingbird reader. And it’s because that “mythic presence” sought by abstractionists can too be found in portraiture. ArtWay continues:

I don’t believe that Hans Belting meant to oppose likeness and presence, as though they could never co-inhabit an image. Nor would I ever argue that Catherine Prescott stands alone in her ability to illuminate character. Yet in an era when the belief that humans are unique is contested, these paintings — direct yet complex, immediate but also fixed, and humble while speaking with quiet eloquence — have a palpable sense of human worth. The British philosopher Roger Scruton has described our age as marked by “defacement,” as various forces and ideologies eradicate our natural sense of the human soul. Prescott’s faces suggest that hidden presence and make human transcendence sensible.

This suggestion of a “hidden presence” in Prescott’s portraiture is some indirect gesture towards the innate image of God in the human body. Second-century church father, Irenaeus, who had perhaps too much to say on the topic of the image and likeness of God, suggested that even though we often think that the Son of God was made in the image of man, the truth is that man was made in the image and likeness of the begotten, not made Son of God. The Son of God (alias: the Word) shows us who we were modeled after and restores us to our intended likeness.

For in times long past, it was said that man was created after the image of God, but it was not [actually] shown; for the Word was as yet invisible, after whose image man was created. Wherefore also he did easily lose the similitude. When, however, the Word of God became flesh, He confirmed both these: for He both showed forth the image truly, since He became Himself what was His image; and He re-established the similitude after a sure manner, by assimilating man to the invisible Father through means of the visible Word.

Christ exemplifies the image and likeness of God through his perfect words and actions, but also through his visible, embodied presence. All this to say, through Christ, man’s likeness is restored, bringing humanity back into its intended unity with the Father.

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Catherine Prescott: Casey, 2014, oil on panel, 22,5 x 15 cm

Back to Prescott: Not for any religious reasons, she felt the pressure to refrain from painting the “image,” and rather to explore more contemporary means of expression through abstraction, which in some ways reflects the battle that Irenaeus fought, combatting the gnostic tendency to deny the intrinsically imagistic human body. But after spending some time at L’Abri, an International Christian Fellowship center in Switzerland, Prescott jumped back into the art scene, alive and kicking. She had discovered “that God was not a respecter of such categorical snobbery. She began to paint what she saw and loved.”

Like all controversial images throughout the history of forever, Prescott’s portraits are more than meets the eye: For her, painting is a way of “knowing.” She paints the surface in order to reflect what lies beneath it; painting is an act of truth-telling and communion. What was once considered lowbrow became Prescott’s greatest expression of truth. And while never explicitly suggesting that her purpose in painting is rooted in anything spiritual, I can’t help but guess that something about that restful time at L’Abri gave Prescott the freedom to render the human image as she had always intended.

Featured imaged: Catherine Prescott: Without Guile2014, oil on panel, 22,5 x 15 cm.