Art and the Sacred

Ten or twelve years ago, there was a bit of a tempest in a bookshop between the National Parks Service, anthropologists, and the general interested public over petroglyphs, pictographs, and “rock art.” It came to most people’s attention (those three who were interested) when the NPS bookstores in places like Mesa Verde removed books that had the term “Rock Art” in the title or that used the term heavily in the main body of the text.  The reason given was that 1) the term is not technically correct as compared to petroglyph and pictograph, and 2) that describing images drawn or inscribed on surfaces by pre-modern Native Peoples is potentially insensitive, demeaning, and incorrect because the works might not have been considered “art” by the people who painted or inscribed them. That this pretty much eliminated everything but hard-core scholarly monographs on the topic from the shops did not really matter. People pointing out that cave paintings in Europe are still called art, and that sacred images in Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity are called art did not matter. After the hue and cry and people asking for books, most of them returned, at least the best-selling ones. But what is art? And how do you appreciate art if you are not familiar with where it came from?

Rogier van der Weyden "St. Luke Painting the Virgin" Boston Museum of Fine Art.

Rogier van der Weyden “St. Luke Painting the Virgin” Boston Museum of Fine Art.

This painting shows up in Blackbird, to the puzzlement of Duke Matthew Charles Malatesta. He does not know a St. Luke or Virgin Mary, but he recognizes the sacred within the painting and how beautiful it is. Paintings like this one were commissioned for personal devotion, to be used as aids to meditation as well as to honor the figures shown. Today we call them art and discuss their importance in the development of painting and what they show us about where they were painted and the culture and values within the image. And some people still find them moving and inspirational.

Zurbarán’s “Agnus Dei” is striking in real life. It is almost life-sized, very simple, and packs a great deal of theology into a very lovely picture of an exceedingly neat and tidy young sheep. Is it art? Oh yes. Is it sacred? If you took away the title and the halo, I suspect the response would be mixed, with some people saying it was one of those elaborate still-life paintings with lots of food in it. Others would say that it is indeed sacred, because of the idea of Jesus as the Lamb of G-d who takes away the sins of the world. “Agnus dei qui tolis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem.”*

Not sacred but still very attractive. Baldassare Caro 'Still Life with Game Animals",2000&cvt=jpg

Not sacred but still very attractive. Baldassare Caro ‘Still Life with Game Animals”,2000&cvt=jpg

Do you have to know the full theological background of a work of art to find it interesting and beautiful? No. Is it incorrect to refer to the works shown above as “art?” Again I would say no, it is not. Their purpose does not change what they are, just as calling the “Agnus Dei” from the Faure Requiem “sacred music” does not change that it is music. You do not have to know what a requiem mass is, or why Faure’s is different from most requiem masses, or what the Latin means, in order to appreciate the song.

Now, why this is more than just me rolling my eyes at people who are so hyper-sensitive to possible slights and diminuations of long-ago people’s pictographs and petroglyphs is the ignorance shown by the offended parties. Calling possibly sacred images art does not demean or diminish them. It does not imply that they were dashed off on a whim for purely decorative reasons, or that they might have had multiple meanings and functions for those who went to a great deal of effort to make them. It just includes them in with things like Hindu statues of Shiva dancing, “The Madonna of the Rocks,” “The Nighthawks,” the interior decorations of the Alhambra, and Red 2.0’s latest watercolor on newsprint depiction of a flower.

There is another ignorance that I’ve seen related to art that worries me more. As the West becomes “post Christian” in the sense that fewer people are taught the basic ideas of Christianity as part of Western Civ, fewer and fewer people understand what many of the great paintings and other works of Western art are supposed to be, other than intricate studies in textiles or as guides to the appearance of Bruges in 1480 (if they know that much). Yes, you can look at the van der Weyden as a lovely picture of a guy doing a portrait of a mother and child, or you can see a man trying to capture both the beauty of motherhood and the grace and awe of the divine made flesh. Look at the great depictions of the manger scene, the “Adoration of the Shepherds” or ‘Adoration of the Magi” and try to imagine knowing nothing about the baby in the middle of the scene. The figures’ expressions of awe and wonder don’t make sense.

Hans Holbein’s painting is very uncomfortable. It is a “memento mori” a reminder of death and of the idea that G-d died as atonement for the sins of mankind. For many people it is a powerful, very meaningful reminder and inspiration, a sign of the love of the Most High for His creation. Other people are probably creeped out big time by a depiction of a decaying corpse. Why is this in a fine art museum, anyway?

Because when it was painted it fit the mood of the people who commissioned it, and contained an enormous amount of meaning. I suspect there are still people who visit it as a form of religious devotion. I have some problems with certain aspects of medieval and Renaissance Catholic theology, but I can spend hours looking at paintings and carvings from the time, taking in the beauty and what the artist was trying to evoke and inspire. Because I am very fortunate to know the background culture that led to these works.

As we lose that background, we lose the value of the art. As we lose the value, we lose the motivation to keep it around. “Cover the nudes so they don’t offend the visiting Iranians” the Vatican ordered. What is next? “Remove the crucifixion scenes so they don’t offend atheists and Jews and Moslems?” “Remove the still lives with dead animals so they don’t upset sensitive people and vegetarians?” “Remove all those old traces of religion because they are just covers for the way the institutions and elites of the past repressed and oppressed the People and everyone knows that only the material world matters?”

Do I exaggerate? I hope so. I truly hope so.

*Bonus points if you heard this set to music.


2 thoughts on “Art and the Sacred

  1. It is easier to manipulate a people if they are cut off from their history. History gives us perspective on current events.

    • Indeed. Trying to explain that the differences between Iran and Saudi predate WWI gets blank looks. Pointing out that it predates Islam has people doing carp impressions at you.

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