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Christian art?
March 27, 2005 2:52 AM   Subscribe

Come Easter, I've been listening to a lot of religious music, not least Bach's passions. It got me thinking as to whether there was any art totally outside of faith that was equally sublime. (Disclaimer: I am an atheist)

Even great secular works were composed by people who, as far as I can tell, had at least some degree of faith (I'm thinking particularly of Beethoven and Mozart here). Wagner, IIRC, also had a fairly strong Christian identity.

Is this a trend that is followed elsewhere in western art? Did Shakespeare or Cervantes have any particularly strong sense of faith? What about art outside of the western tradition and in other faiths?

I'm thinking particularly about those artists who have been seemingly preserved for posterity (but therein might lie the answer to my question!), those that have achieved titanic stature as the highest exemplars of their art.

I'm not particularly knowledgeable about any of this. Just a bit of Easter Sunday speculation. So please tell me if I'm barking up the wrong tree.
posted by Jongo to Religion & Philosophy (27 answers total)
Although many Greco-Roman statues use religious themes -- many depict common people. Does that qualify?

As for Shakespeare, it would be difficult assign a specific creed to his writing. He kept it pretty generic. The fact that persuasive attempts have been made for both pro- and anti- Catholic bias tells you that an awful lot of scholars are projecting their own biases onto the bard.
posted by RavinDave at 3:58 AM on March 27, 2005

I find some of Richard Dawkins quite sublime. And the last sentence of The Origin of Species. See also my post here on feeling the sublime -- even it the art is technical in nature.
posted by orthogonality at 4:59 AM on March 27, 2005

Architecturally, the Natural History Museum in London is a good example.

posted by Pretty_Generic at 5:13 AM on March 27, 2005

I have no doubt there were many great people in history who went through the motions of religious ceremony, because that was the done thing in their society, without having any real beliefs themselves. Openly admitted atheism is a rare thing in history.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 5:17 AM on March 27, 2005

Err, according to what I've read, Wagner was quite anti-Christian up until Parsifal, which came as such a surprise that Nietzsche was inclined to interpret it as a satire on Christianity.

Philip Glass comes to mind, if that's your cup of tea, and it's very much mine. Who knows about whether his work'll be preserved for posterity, but he's certainly original influencial, and I think, very "sublime".

Another interesting answer would be to look at Buddhist art, which strikes me [IANAB] as religious without being about religion, if you grok that.
posted by ITheCosmos at 5:21 AM on March 27, 2005

art is a cultural thing. that's what gives it body. art resonantes against culture. for millenia, culture has meant religion. so by definition, art and religion are as closely bound as art and culture.

in broad terms, that's because of the enormous political power religions held.

so you'll find counter examples in modern times, and perhaps in northern european art during the reformation, when there was an explicit rejection of some of the political power of christianity (simplifying a tad).
posted by andrew cooke at 5:29 AM on March 27, 2005

I'm not sure what you mean by art outside of faith. Art that wasn't directly inspired by religion? Art that was made by people in whose lives faith played no part? (On preview: andrew cooke may have a point, there.) In the former category, Monteverdi's operas and Mozart's non-religious works might qualify.
posted by rjs at 5:34 AM on March 27, 2005

I, too, have been struck by how many of the greatest works of art have had strong religious elements. I think it can be explained by two factors:

1: For most of western history, a massive work of art could only be funded by one of two sources: the Church, or a really wealthy nobleman.

2: The work of even the greatest artist is heavily influenced by whoever is paying for the art. Shakespeare was a businessman with a part interest in a theatre, and his works were clearly written to please a paying audience rather than the Church. Samuel Johnson--widely considered the first full-time professional writer in the English language--made his living from secular sources, and wrote secular work. Bach's religious works are full of deep and sincere religious passion--but he also wrote secular works in honour of certain noblemen. Heck, he even wrote a cantata about coffee to be played in his local equivalent of Starbucks.

The independent artist who doesn't have to please a specific patron is a relatively recent thing in human history, and truly great and lasting works of art don't come along all the time, so it's not surprising that religious works dominate the cannon.

As a result, it's really only in the art forms that came of age in the 20th century that you'll find a large percentage of major secular works. The greatest films, the greatest jazz albums, the greatest comic books--these tend to be very secular works.
posted by yankeefog at 5:34 AM on March 27, 2005

oh, and cervantes doesn't seem particularly bothered about religion (or shakespeare for that matter, but i'm currently reading don quijote). curates appear in the story, but there's no particular religious emphasis. but then i'm not sure how there could be, given his very "modern" attitude (it's amazing to read a book that's so old and feels so young; but i guess that's what vargas llosas says, in the preface - i'm reading the anniversary edn that's just come out - much better than i could); i'm also not sure it's "sublime" (but my spanish isn't really up to it, in all honesty - still, it's cool to be able to get at least something from it, in its original form). and returnging to my original argument, his case, the culture he's sounding against is a pile of very bad books by other people. so he's explicitly providing something other than religion to work against. which might help explain the modernity.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:36 AM on March 27, 2005

My new favourite Shakespeare quote is from Twelfth Night: "There is no darkness but ignorance". Make of that what you will.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 6:32 AM on March 27, 2005

I'm at a loss here, I admit. Not because I can't think of great art that isn't obviously inspired by religion, but because I can think of too much. My God... walk around any decent art gallery. Listen to the great classical composers and notice just how many of their works make precisely no reference to religion. Literature... where to start?

The idea that most of the greatest art has been inspired by religion is, I think, a lazy piece of myth-making which has been pushed so hard and so long by the religious that even non-religious people have come to think there's something in it, when a little actual analysis will soon show how false the notion is. And of course, as any sort of argument for the inherent truth of religious belief (and they do try this, you know) it is utterly void.
posted by Decani at 6:48 AM on March 27, 2005

The idea that most of the greatest art has been inspired by religion is, I think, a lazy piece of myth-making

Yeah, I'd have to agree. I can think of great works of writing and poetry inspired by religion (Paradise Lost) but most of the best seems to be about human relationships, love, death, understanding... Shakespeare may refer to religion here and there, but his work is strongly humanist if you think about it - it's "to be or not to be", not "to be on earth or to be in heaven".

Actually, even Paradise Lost seems to be about humanity to me - we can imagine the divine, but we are stuck actually being imperfect, finite beings. "Paradise Regained" was never going to resonate as deeply, because it relies on a projection of faith, while Paradise Lost is just a metaphoric way of recognizing the sense of isolation that comes with reflective consciousness.

Music is a bit different because it's all about feelings or the beauty of beauty, and some percentage of people refer to the experience of sublimity or awe at the universe as "the divine" or "god". But that doesn't necessarily mean it's taken literally.
posted by mdn at 8:24 AM on March 27, 2005

not just music. think about decorative arts. a huge amount of (exemplary, ie not just colouring walls white, or building houses) painting and architecture is religious.
posted by andrew cooke at 8:28 AM on March 27, 2005

The idea that most of the greatest art has been inspired by religion is, I think, a lazy piece of myth-making....

If your notion of 'the greatest art' is historically based (i.e. the beginning of modernism seen in Byzantine art), then this is an extremely myopic statement. According to the Academy, high art was completely inspired, commissioned, funded, preserved, catalogued, and transported directly by religion...and more specifically The Church. Even the greatest honor of the donors was to be drawn into the painting with saintly status. In fact, it wasn't until the Renaissance that artists dared paint anything aside from Jesus, the stories of the old/new testament, and the saints. And even when the declension occurred later in a more secular vein, it was manifest as royal portraits of the Kings, which were viewed as direct descendants of God. Louis XIV: domine salvum fac regem, etc. The first significant paintings of servants and common men did not come about until much more modern ages, and were still very controversial.

I think an artist like Hieronymus Bosch is a perfect example of conceptions towards 'the sublime' (god) in high art: He was a known heretic, and did not conform or adhere to Christianity. However, most all of his paintings were commissioned by religious factions, and saturated with faith-based themes and images. He drew his narratives from the Golden Legends of saints and hagiography. You simply cannot state that Bosch created without direct influence of religion or the Church, although he shunned the concepts of Christianity. Religion was simply the vernacular of men…a complete zeitgeist of the 13th - 17th centuries. Life was completely faith-based; there was no deviation. The Church commissioned the religious work for the masses of illiterate to curry favor towards the lives of the saints and the dominance of organized religion. But this isn't a myth by any means.

Personally, as a novice art historian, I consider some of the greatest masterpieces of oil and architecture Church-funded. Michaelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, Carravagio’s narratives of various saints, Giotto’s massive Marys’, etc…but again this goes back to one's conception of high art.
posted by naxosaxur at 8:43 AM on March 27, 2005

Another thought: I'd like hypothesize something new that is based on the experience of the modern American landscape painters of the Hudson River School. Artists such as Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and Frederic Edwin Church all introduced the notion of 'sublime' in secular-based painting during the mid-nineteenth century thought their awe-inspiring landscapes. By exploring the vastness of pristine nature, these artists are credited with creating a sense of awe -- or, the sublime -- found in unorthodox and unexpected places devoid of the Church or religion. Their work addresses humanity and grand beauty that was only conveyed previously through a direct confrontation or manifestation of God. This also paved the way for artists such as Rothko, who took completely secular representations within his paintings, but was able to convey a sense of godliness and sublime.
posted by naxosaxur at 9:00 AM on March 27, 2005

If your notion of 'the greatest art' is historically based (i.e. the beginning of modernism seen in Byzantine art), then this is an extremely myopic statement. According to the Academy, high art was completely inspired, commissioned, funded, preserved, catalogued, and transported directly by religion...and more specifically The Church.

"inspired" is completely different from "commissioned, funded, preserved, catalogued and transported." The question was about the artist's faith. That our cultural history was long directly intertwined with religion has no bearing on the degree of belief in god that the actual creators of these works experienced.

Churches are a good example of art that wouldn't exist without religion, though. Well... except, we do have castles, which can be great architecture as well. I suppose the difference is that a church is pure art, ie, it has no real utilitarian purpose; its purpose is to be beautiful, and this is justified as being beautiful for God, because we have long felt we can't justify art for art's sake, so we project that the divine wants it from us... the modern age has allowed us to do it simply for the sake of our own humanity, or for an abstract human ideal, like knowledge (hence beautiful museums) but there are still many people who feel, what's the point of that, and would prefer the money be spent on feeding the poor than on creating beautiful structures... Which is not a position without merit, though I do think it's important to express humanity through 'useless' art.
posted by mdn at 9:15 AM on March 27, 2005

churches and castles are more alike than you think - they both are statements of power. the basis of that power differs (physical or spiritual), but politically that is largely irrelevant. so churches are no more "pure" (or "useless") than castles.
(i guess you are posting from a non-catholic country. here in s america churches are much more than decoration - they have very specific roles in the indoctrination and control of people. we have a presidential candidate that is a member of a religious society, and clergymen that will tell people how to vote.)
posted by andrew cooke at 9:48 AM on March 27, 2005

posted by ontic at 10:39 PM on March 27, 2005

So please tell me if I'm barking up the wrong tree.

You're barking up the wrong tree. The act of art itself - creativity for its own sake - can be thought of as an act of faith. But your question, not to mention title of this thread, appears to assume a primacy to religious inspiration; if so, the assumption is completely unfounded. There's plenty of sublime inspiration to be found in nature, for example. The art of Andy Goldsworthy is one place to start.

I understand this is new to you, but starting from an assumption that "sublime" = "religiously inspired" isn't going to be very fruitful.
posted by mediareport at 10:45 PM on March 27, 2005

I would also note that, of all mediums, the written word seems least likely to depend on religious inspiration for its greatest works. I would hypothesize that this is because the cost of entry is cheaper for writing than for any other medium--canvas is more expensive than paper, and even the cheapest flute costs more than a pen. Hence writers can more easily work without needing a large influx of capital from a wealthy patron (which, as I noted early, meant "the church" or "a nobleman" for most of human history.)
posted by yankeefog at 6:30 AM on March 28, 2005

If your notion of 'the greatest art' is historically based (i.e. the beginning of modernism seen in Byzantine art), then this is an extremely myopic statement.

Interesting that you see the broader view as being "myopic", naxosaxur, rather than the one that insists most great art is inspired primarily by one impulse.

I think others have made the major responses to this well enough. I, too, tend to balk at reading too much into commision-based "inspiration". I also find the following statement interesting:

it wasn't until the Renaissance that artists dared paint anything aside from Jesus, the stories of the old/new testament, and the saints.

I think that use of the word "dared" tells us most of what we need to know about how much the creative juices of those particular artists were inspired by religion rather than given no option by it.
posted by Decani at 6:48 AM on March 28, 2005

yankeefog has a good point about literature and access. it implies that you'd see a difference when it's expensive and i think that's right - before printing became popular, books that i can think of were mainly religious texts (think illustrated manuscripts etc) or other political documents.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:40 AM on March 28, 2005

and wasn't printing translated versions of the bible connected with the reduction in the power of the catholic church? so there's a feedback loop - literature didn't just escape from the control of the church, but the associated technology helped other arts become freer too.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:42 AM on March 28, 2005

and can you argue that blake (and goya) were liberated from the church because they could produce prints?
posted by andrew cooke at 7:53 AM on March 28, 2005

churches are no more "pure" (or "useless") than castles.

I don't believe that's literally true - a cathedral's much easier to barge into than a castle - but it is nevertheless a good point, considering the missions in the Americas you mentioned, which combine the two in many ways, and also the number of times temples have been used for last stands in history.

In general you do have to consider that the Church was the seat of learning in Europe for a good 800 years or so, and in the meantime secular rulers weren't powerful, rich, or stable enough to afford much in the way of art initiatives. It may be worth contrasting this to how Chinese/Japanese art developed, where a relatively secular (but inspired by religion in most cases) current appeared many years earlier, parallel to their explicitly religious art. (Also, on preview, that relates to availability of materials - the more secular of east Asian arts being ink-painting, calligraphy, and printmaking, the explicitly religious ones sculpture and architecture, which was all Europe had for a long time.)
posted by furiousthought at 8:23 AM on March 28, 2005

what about science and math
posted by foraneagle2 at 1:43 PM on March 28, 2005

churches are no more "pure" (or "useless") than castles.

Well, in practice you make a good point. I guess the distinction I was getting at was the idea that a church was supposedly made to be available to anyone and not to have to deal with 'is the living room big enough' type of questions. Although castles were state houses and not simply mansions, so in a way more like "the white house" or something, than purely a rich guy's residence. Of course, on the other other hand, back when all these things were built, most of the church and state were pretty much equivalent to the "rich guys", so it all ends up smushing together, as you suggest.

Still, I don't know if any king would have had michelangelo paint amazing murals on his ceiling & all that. It seems that one could at least argue for some amount of piety or love of the sublime in the construction of the most beautiful cathedrals, whereas most castles are a bit more blatant in their lack of homage to any sense of awe, or of the divine.
posted by mdn at 10:03 AM on March 29, 2005

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