But the key to this painting's enduring appeal is not its subject or its inherent ambiguity, but its form—specifically, the stark frontality of the figures. Think about the other iconic images from art history: the Mona Lisa, Munch's Scream, Warhol's Marilyn, Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother. All of them depict human figures directly facing the viewer—just like the flatly frontal images of saints in medieval Christian icons. Rendering figures in this way imprints them on our memories and endows them with both authority and immediacy. Early Christians believed icons were like portals that allowed the viewer to communicate directly with the sacred figure represented. Modern secular icons like American Gothic still retain some vestige of sacredness, in the sense that they connect with something larger—not with the divine, but with the collective memory of our image-loving culture.
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