Highest Purpose Of Art
( Originally Published 1896 )
The highest purpose of all art is to teach and enforce true religion. All fine art from painting to poetry fulfills its noblest mission when it breathes the spirit of religion and administers pure pleasure and solid comfort to man's heart. Everything best and most worthy in the whole realm of art works has sprung-from moral or religious inspiration. There has hardly been an age or nation of the world in which the aesthetic emotions of the human soul have not sought expression in artistic forma. And this is emphatically true of the deepest feelings of the heart which are the. religious. Both pagans and Christians have developed a religious art and "availed themselves of aesthetic forms and models of presenting their doctrines and creeds to the -consciences and hearts of men; some employing all the fine arts, others only a part of them."
All of the arts seem to have been more or less de--voted to the service of religion and associated with the worship of higher beings. Apollo was the god of the fine arts,-of music, poetry, and eloquence. Minerva was the Greek goddess of the liberal arts, Venus the goddess of beauty, love, laughter, and pleasure. Statues and grand temples were erected to these deities in different countries. In the art galleries of the Old World we may now see their numerous images and statues mostly broken and fragmentary that have been unearthed from ancient ruins, and yet showing that they were elegant works of art.
Sculpture has been called the child of religion. One would think that the religious temper had been the spirit life of fine art. Religious creeds have ever tried to embody themselves in rude and often unbecoming instinctive arts. Art has too often been made to serve false worship and idolatry. Mr. Ruskin thinks that there is grave doubt whether art has not hitherto on -the whole done evil rather than good in its connection with religion. He does not presume to decide the question. He declares that "art is the impurer for not being in the service of Christianity." We believe that, notwithstanding the past abuses and misuses of art particularly by the Roman Catholic church, it has been, and may yet be of immense value in the service 'of pure religion. The fault has not been so much with the art as with the religion. The fact is that pure art has suffered much at the hands of false religion and a spurious or corrupt Christianity.
There is an art-instinct in all nations, and this needs purifying and directing by a pure religion. That a distorted moral nature will produce a monstrosity in art may be seen among savage nations in their grotesque, ghastly, and frightful forms of idols and objects worshiped. A true religious ideal and enthusiasm may animate an artist. Christian faith is essential to the highest forms of art and human culture. Christ's teachings are the model of man's highest excellence, the inspirer of his heart's best affections.
Christian art had its origin in Rome. A new period -of art began, when, in the fourth century, the heathen world at length became Christianized. There was not a sudden rupture from old Roman art and a spontaneous, invention of an entirely new style. The transition from heathen to Christian ideas was gradual. The accustomed forms were still employed to express the newly altered views of God's character and man's destination. The Christian ideas and doctrines in the midst of hostile heathenism could only expand slowly and cautiously and organize and take root deeper and deeper. The Christians were to be wise as serpents, harmless as. doves. The eye and the hand are apt to cling to old habits and customs longer than the mind. "Reared in the midst of heathen Rome, the Christian community perceived no necessity to deviate from the artistic principles of antiquity." The proof of this gradual change is found in the Roman Catacombs in the adornments of which the early Christians " adhered to the decorative forms handed down by their ancestors;. and in design, choice of color, grouping of figures, and treatment of subject, they were entirely guided by the customary rules." It was not till five centuries later that a new artistic style had arisen both in the pictorial and plastic arts; and meanwhile new modes of architecture had developed to meet the demands of Christian worship.
Christian worship is not to supersede the pagan's piety, but his idolatry. " Christianity has neither superseded, nor, by itself, excelled heathenism; but it has added its own good, to all that was good and noble in heathenism, but our present thoughts and work when they are right, are nobler than the heathen's." We believe that forms of art borrowed from pagan mythology are generally out of place in Christian art,. though we would not forbid the Christian artist from catching pure and sublime conceptions and drawing useful material from any source, even as early Christian. art occasionally pressed pagan mythology into its service. We hardly felt like condemning a beautiful fresco ceiling which we saw taken from one of the Roman Catacombs where the fabled Orpheus is represented with his lyre taming the wild beasts, thus symbolizing: the peaceful sway of Christ. It is well to
" Receive the truth where'er 'tis found,
All unnatural pagan and barbarous work should be excluded, however fantastic or attractive, and natural form admitted. The proof of a thing's being right is that it has power over the heart; that it excites us, wins us, or helps us." There is a moral poetry and a moral music, and it is these that .« promote the health of the heart." The fault with pagan art is that it has little or no naturalness, no heart in it.
Naturalness must not yield to superstition, chastity should resist sensuality. Art must not be made subservient to superstition - the " slave to ecclesiastical pride," as has been too much the case. Our standard author on matters of art thus draws the contrast between religion and superstition: " Religion proselytes by love, superstition by war; religion teaches by example, superstition by persecution. Religion gave granite shrine to the Egyptian, golden temple to the Jew, sculptured corridor to the Greek, pillared aisle and frescoed wall to the Christian. Superstition made idols of the splendors by which religion had spoken, reverenced pictures and stones, instead of truths; letters and laws instead of acts; and forever, in various madness of fantastic desolation, kneels in the temple while it crucifies the Christ."
The Christian artist need not be an idealist, but should devote himself to realistic conceptions and portrayal. The gilded virgins and bloody crucifixes of Romanism are base forms of imagery and appeal to ignorant fancy and credulity-harmful, not helpful to pure Christianity. We want no religious art that shall minister to the thirst for horror and love of death. Nor do we want an art that gratifies a vulgar desire for religious excitement. So many gory paintings and tragic sculptures of the physical wounds and agonies of Christ, degrade rather than exalt. Physical pain is not the high ideal of Christianity, bat life. " He is risen." It is not multiplied skulls and fingers and bones of St. Peter or St. Paul, nor painted heads of saints and Madonnas, Magdalens, and Immaculate Conceptions that we want, nor so many bloody crucifixion scenes, but the Resurrection, Transfiguration, and glorious Ascension - the miracles, parables, living and inspiring illustrations and pictures of Old and New Testament history, and remarkable scenes in the subsequent ages of the Christian church down to date. A regenerated good taste and common sense will dictate what is worthy of illustration. The painfully tragic should be perhaps wholly avoided, and the purely sentimental and rhapsodic indulged only in a limited degree.