The Language of Art, Then and Now

My trip to the Louvre roughly two weeks ago was a very interesting experience, not the least because I discovered that Chinese tourists have become what Japanese tourists were in the 1980s. Looking at the many famous works of art caused me to reflect again on the role of the arts in modern religion, particularly Christianity. I recently found out that Thomas Day, author of the famous book “Why Catholics Can’t Sing” wrote another book entitled “Where Have You Gone Michelangelo?” about the supposed loss of beauty in the Catholic tradition. Like many religious conservatives, Day’s remedy appears to involve simply resurrecting what worked in the past and doing more of the same, but I don’t think that it’s that simple.

As with monarchy, the art and symbols that expressed the religious sensibilities of the past can’t be re-purposed for our current era, because they don’t mean the same things. For example, if you look at many medieval and Renaissance artworks, from altar pieces, to paintings, to illuminated texts, you’ll notice that that in works depicting famous Biblical scenes like the Nativity, the Annunciation, the Flight into Egypt, etc. there are a bunch of decidedly non-Biblical characters included in the scenes. Some of these people are canonized saints (clearly identifiable by their halos), but others are just kind of “there” and are obviously “ordinary people.” Who are these individuals? In some cases, they are bishops, abbots, and other notable religious figures from the area in which the work of art was produced. In other cases, they are the rich patrons who sponsored the creation of the piece of art in question. To put this in perspective, imagine that one of the members of the Jenner-Kardashians clan (who are products of Orange County evangelicalism/conservatism) commissioned a painting of the Nativity, but demanded that the entire family had to be depicted among the shepherds and the Magi. Most people would regard such a work as narcissistic at best and quasi-blasphemous at worse, but including local notables in religious art was par for the course during the age of Christendom.

Also note the clothing worn in medieval and Renaissance era artworks. With the exception of Jesus, almost all the figures in these pieces are dressed in the way people would have dressed at the time the work in question was being produced, not the way people would have actually dressed when the scenes were supposed to have taken place. This is why why you can see conquistadors and tall oceangoing merchant vessels in paintings that supposedly take place in first century Palestine, but were painted in Counter-Reformation Spain. Once again, imagine that a modern artist painted a picture of the Crucifixion, but everyone in the painting is dressed in jeans and t-shirts, with the odd business suit thrown in to represent Pontius Pilate and the Pharisees. Would the painting “work”? Probably not.

In fact, many great works of art in the Western tradition are not “beautiful,” at least not in the neo-Platonic sense that many conservotrads seem to think. While it is true that many of the paintings hanging up in the Met, the Louvre, or even the Vatican are skillfully executed and almost lifelike in their details, the subject matter tends to be extremely violent and not particularly “wholesome” or “uplifting”: the rape of the Sabine women, the rape of Lucretia, paintings of the Greco-Roman gods engaging in extra-martial (and often non-consensual) affairs, gory battle scenes, both real and imagined, famines, pillaging, murders, etc. And that’s not even getting into the many depictions of moral ambiguous tales from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  Conservotrads tend to link “the Beautiful” with “the Good,” when the two are often contradictory. A work of art may be beautifully rendered, but not express “the Good” or even provide any sort of moral counsel. Indeed, the best works tend to be morally ambiguous, or at the very least contain characters that can’t be easily categorized as entirely good or entirely bad.

The loss of “beauty” in Catholicism is directly related to the fact that the church doesn’t know what it is either. During the age of Christendom, the Catholic church was the primary social, intellectual, and economic force in much of Europe and could afford to be adventurous in ways that it couldn’t in later era. For example, the church of the Renaissance could erect a private chapel for the pope with a bunch of naked people on the ceiling and no one thought twice about it, because the church controlled intellectual discourse at the time. Even if an artist as talented as Michelangelo could be found today, the modern Catholic church would never dream of replicating the Sistine Chapel, because such a thing wouldn’t be “wholesome.” And that’s the real reason why modern Christian art is so ugly. Modern Christianity is obsessed with “wholesomeness” and “purity” to the point where nothing can be too interesting or too exciting or else it won’t be “wholesome.”

The only “artistic vocabulary” that the church has at its disposal are symbols that were relevant hundreds of years ago. The truth is that many people really like the glass and steel architecture that’s in vogue right now, and don’t think twice about the fact that their place of worship is built in exactly the same way. I see a lot of complaining about modern art and architectural trends in conservotrad and traditionalist publications, but no attempts to create an alternative, other than to try and revive the symbols of days gone past. While Gothic architecture, altarpieces, and elaborate vestments may have spoke to the people of Christendom (and note, that none of these were universal during Christendom), the Christians of today speak a different artistic and symbolic language, one that the institutional churches in general have been slow to understand. When we look at art from the medieval or Renaissance period, we tend to see them as artifacts of another time and place, not as devotional objects that have any relevance to our own spiritual lives. Even the most ardent traditionalist will not see Chartes cathedral or a gold reliquary in the same way that a medieval person would have. Maybe the churches in Africa, where Christianity is still in the “honeymoon stage,” will create a new artistic vocabulary for the church, but given how different African cultures are from the West, perhaps they would simply create another unintelligible aesthetic for conservotrads to digest.