Pühaduse performatiivsus ja kristlik teater / The Performativity of Sacrality and Christian Theatre


  • Madis Kolk Tartu University




teater, sakraalkunst, õigeusk, ikonograafia, performatiivsus, theatre, ecclesiastical art, orthodoxy, iconography, performativity


Teesid: 20. sajandil on esile kerkinud mitmeid teatrisuundi, mis on kritiseerinud ja püüdnud ületada Lääne traditsioonilise teatri väidetavat sõnakesksust ning samuti selle võimetust täita n-ö püha kunsti funktsioone. Kuigi seda pühadusedefitsiiti on püütud leevendada ennekõike orientaalsetest teatrivormidest inspiratsiooni ammutades, aitab selle võimalikku tekkelugu mõista ka katoliikliku kultuuri mõjuväljas võrsunud teatrikunsti ning teatrivaenulikuma ortodoksi teoloogia kontekstis välja töötatud ikooniteoloogia võrdlus. Kõrvutades nende kahe konfessiooni teoloogilis-esteetilisi arusaamu, saame analüüsida ka performatiivsuse esteetika seisukohast olulisi kunstiteose loome- ja tajutingimuste vormilisi ja meelelisi aspekte ning nende toimet sakraalse kunsti sihtide seisukohast.


In the 21st century Western society has seen an increasing interest in topics related to religion. In this context, the connection between the concept of sacrality in Western culture and freedom of verbal and artistic expression has been reconsidered; the very possibility of so-called sacred art within Western culture has been called into question.

Already in the 20th century several theatrical movements in the West have expressed the need to strive for religious (or at least quasi-religious) goals by means of the stage. This can already be seen in the work of the symbolists, but such experiments accelerated and became more forceful under the influence of Antonin Artaud’s visions and under the aegis of intercultural theatre. In all of these different quests one can find common elements: discontent with the discursivity of the theatrical canon, a need for a metaphysical dimension in the theatre, and the belief that channels of perception can be opened through contact with exotic ritual cultures.

In his book Sacred Theatre Ralph Yarrow has attempted to define the criteria of sacrality in the theatre, drawing upon William S. Haney’s prior determinations, which emphasizes first, that sacred theatre induces a change of consciousness in which the subject and the object merge; second, the liminality of the intersubjective environment surrounding the experience of the sacred, in which the verbal and the transcendental unite. When describing the influence of the logocentrism of Christian culture on the experience of sacredness, Yarrow draws on the views of Mark C. Taylor, Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade and Georges Bataille. All of these thinkers critique the rationalism attributed to monotheistic religion, which gives an important place to Christ as the mediator of God’s transcendental truth, the logos, and sacred scripture, all of which differ from the numinous experience of the mystic. The art of so-called sacred theatre, where, at least according to tradition, the performative mission, dramaturgy, stage design, and public reception are all part of a unified contemplative whole seems to be missing in Western culture. Indeed, this is what several Western stage experimenters have been looking for, and in their search they have looked eastward.

New viewpoints with respect to the perception of a work of art were gained in the „performative turn“ of the end of the 20th century; besides the text, proponents of this new direction became interested in the sensory and bodily processes of creativity and reception. Erika Fischer-Lichte and others have conceptualized these processes on a more general level and reflected upon the aesthetics of performativity; insodoing they have pointed to a dualism in the Western aesthetics of performativity, recognizing that there is a contradiction between the referential, semiotic pole of art and its performative dimension. Although the reasons for this split can be sought in the very origins of Western art as well as that of medieval Christian art, relations between theatre and the church differ according to confession; Yarrow’s definitions do not apply to Christianity as a whole. As distinct from the Catholic church, which, occasional polemics notwithstanding, has been a good neighbour to theatre from the medieval period onward, Orthodox theology has been more wary of theatre, or at least regarded the media and goals of theatre as incompatible with the goals of sacred art.

Despite this difference of context, the iconographer of Eastern art and the theatre avant-gardist who longs for sacrality in Western logocentric theatre focus on similar mechanisms and processes. With respect 

to the origin and development of medieval religious art one might generalize that while the centre of Orthodox liturgy is the fellowship of holy communion, in the Western Church a drive toward analysis and interpretation arose alongside the experience of communion. This analytic drive facilitated the development of interpretive scholastics which translated theology by means of formal logic. Also, a dramaturgic aspect began increasingly to differentiate itself from the Mass and holy communion, finding more commonality with theatre as an independent art form. In the Eastern Church, which preserved the theological heritage of the Church Fathers was preserved, the theology of the icon was developed. According to this, sacred art could not be regarded apart from its liturgical context, nor could an independent aesthetic value be attached to it. The platonic roots of Orthodox theology led to the perpetuation of the attitude of the Church Fathers: theatre could endanger the health of the soul or prevent the pursuit of spiritual goals, that is theosis, because the fictional world of theatre blurs truth and human identity, drawing both the performer and the viewer toward affectivity and escapism. However, despite its conservative theology of the icon, which deplored realism and emotionality, the Orthodox church had its own aesthetic of performativity, which in addition to content draws attention to the creative, functional and perceptual prerequisites for sacred art.

The theological and aesthetic differences between Catholicism and the Orthodox church are also reflected today in the theologically-inclined reception of works with religious content. For example, based on the lively theological feedback to Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Sufferings of Christ one might claim that the judgments of Catholics mostly concern the m e s s a g e of the work, the appropriateness of its content, that is the referential pole; Orthodox theologians rather place more emphasis on the appropriateness of the m e d i u m to theological goals, that is, the performative effect of the work of art. Besides differences in pure artistic representation, it is also worth examining such questions as Catholic and Orthodox interpretations of the Trinity or the teaching of Gregorius Palamas (1296–1359) on divine energies, which were later declared to be heretical. Thus Orthodox liturgical practice seems to contradict many of the stereotypes that eastward-turning seekers of sacred theatre have attributed to Western sacral culture as a whole, overlooking aspects of dynamism that can be found in the Eastern Christian church. This topic has been discussed in several recent accounts of iconography, which examine the performativity of the icon, distinguishing its processes of creation and perception from the Western representation-oriented concept of the picture (eg Bissera V. Pencheva, Adrian Gorea).

Granted, one should be careful when drawing parallels between the strictly rule-bound theology of the icon and aesthetics of performativity focused on the sensory aspect of art. However, this article takes the position that what should be emphasized are the differences between Orthodox and Catholic views of art, by means of which one can elucidate the points of departure of the Western quest for sacred theatre and the performative level to which it aspires.


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Author Biography

Madis Kolk, Tartu University

Madis Kolk – MA in theatre studies, doctoral student of the Institute for Cultural Research and Fine Arts, Tartu University, editor-in-chief of the journal Teater. Muusika. Kino, lecturer of theatre history in the Institute of Fine Arts, Tallinn University. Main research interests are related with the relations of theatre and religion. 






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