Religion - The Patron Of Art, Art The Servant Of Religion
( Originally Published 1896 )
Science, art, philosophy, commerce, culture, and civilization, like Tyre of old, are the true, and loyal allies of the church of God."
The rise of the Christian church was the restoration of the fine arts.-Bishop Thompson.
It cannot well be denied that art has greatly aided religion and that religion, in turn, has developed art. Fine art may be useful both as illustrative and historical. Man's desire to record events gave the first impulse to sculpture and the second impulse to sculpture was given by man's religious nature. Indeed, it may almost be said that sculpture is the child of religion.
False religions have in all ages and lands employed art in their propagation. It is the distorted moral nature of savage races, in the absence of all moral help, that produces among them the frightful and grotesque forms of rude art. The religions of the different nations may be studied hardly more in their sacred books than in their paintings, symbols, chiseled forms, and bronze casts. Idolatry was dignified with every charm of art. The purpose of painting among the ancients was largely to represent and illustrate the myths of the gods, the deeds of heroes, and important historical events. The various attributes and characteristics of the gods, goddesses, and other mythological personages are shown in the various paintings and sculptured forms of Egypt, Greece, Rome and other lands.
The Egyptians appear to have been the first to attempt to represent the figures of gods, sacred emblems, and other subjects, consisting of drawing or painting simple outlines of them on a flat surface, the details being afterwards put in with color. Next, we find these forms were traced on stone with a tool.
The gigantic architecture and sculpture belonging to a prehistoric age, and the ruins of which are found in India, Egypt, Syria, Britain, Mexico, Peru, and other countries - all have an almost uniform religious design. The traveler discovers from their vast ruins that in all ages and lands the noblest edifices have been erected in honor of religion and the gods.
It is religion that has employed the beauties of form and color on the grandest scale. The fine arts have been inspired by enthusiastic religious feeling. Religion has done more than anything else for the development and direction of the highest artistic taste. Sculpture as well as painting has been imbued with the religious feeling. " The most splendid and various statuary ever made represented the fancied gods and goddesses" of Greece.
The spirit of sculpture reached its zenith by the hand of Phidias in the golden age of Greek art. Plastic art. was then emancipated altogether from antique stiffness, grace and majesty were combined in the happiest manner, and the most perfect style was attained.
Phidias was called "the sculptor of the gods," for his matchless genius gave form to the sublimest conceptions of the deity ever evolved by the human mind. His images of Jupiter Olympus, Minerva in the Parthenon, and Athene Promachus on the Acropolis, have never been equaled as visible representatives of the gods.
Pausanius thus describes his image of Jupiter Olympus: "The god, made of ivory and gold, is seated on a throne, his head crowned with a branch of olive, his right hand presented a victory of ivory and gold, with a crown and fillet; his left hand held a sceptre, studded with all kinds of metals, on which an eagle sat; the sandals of the god were gold, so was his drapery, on which were various animals, with flowers of all kinds, especially lilies; his throne was richly wrought with gold and precious stones." Another says, " This statue was sixty feet in height, and the most renowned work of ancient sculpture, not for stupendous magnitude alone, bat more for majesty and sublime beauty."
Praxitiles also carved for the temples of the gods. It would be easy to prove from history that religion has given birth to the sublimest conceptions and highest execution in art. We find that the noblest productions of more modern art arise from religious sentiments. The great master artists as well as poets of Christendom have caught their sublimest conceptions and adorned their most exalted characters from the rich treasury of divine Revelation. Did not Michael Angelo catch his sublime ideals mostly from the Old Testament Scriptures. while Raphael derived his lofty artistic designs from the New? Indeed, we can hardly appreciate these productions of the masters without being familiar with the Scripture events and historical scenes which they delineate.
The Gothic cathedral itself is the creation of Christianity. " The highest and noblest aspirations of the earlier Christian believers found their loftiest outward expression in Gothic architecture, in which every part has its special use and symbolism, and which is also a type of the elevation, subordination, discipline, and, at the same time, the unity of the Christian church. This style of architecture arose and was perfected in the Dark Ages, when the grandest cathedrals that the world has ever seen rose in numbers and magnificence from Iona to Rome."
Most of the rich carvings and ornaments of these great cathedrals has a religious signification, being meant to symbolize the mysteries of Redemption. Their designs are drawn from the leading facts of the Bible and the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. But they are too often shaded with a touch of Roman idolatry and a disgusting amount of Mariolitry.
The Romish church has considered art a fitting means of enforcing its religious doctrines and awakening religious thought and emotion. Art has no doubt helped much to advance the cause of certain creeds which it has been used to recommend.
The question of importance to be considered is whether true and pure religion may be embodied at all in art, whether Christ in art may not help Christ into the heart. May not spiritual Christianity be aided by material art? All admit that art may excite wonder and admiration and aesthetic emotion, but is that all it can do? Can the chisel and brush not give in some sense spiritual expression to the marble and canvas? May not art even "administer the comforts and breathe the spirit of religion?" May not pure religion make her abode in the most artistic churches and sublimest cathedrals, costing millions, perhaps? Has art any power to strengthen a man's feeling of reverence and love and obligation to the true and living God? Can ,art add to our true devotion, practical piety and godliness? May not art hand over to Christianity her choicest productions whether of architecture or of sculpture and painting without detriment to pure religion? In fine, has art no use in sacred things, and shall religion discourage and fetter the genius of artists?
Some claim that it is a matter of grave donbt whether art has not been more detrimental than serviceable to the cause of true religion and to the purity of religious worship. There are people who have such a false theory of art that they seem to have nothing worthy or valuable to say about it.
The difficulty with persons who are prejudiced against the employment of art in religion is that they confound true with false art, Christian with pagan art. They have seen so much abuse of art in idolatrous worship, that they deny altogether its legitimate use in religion.
If the Romish church, imitating old Pagnism, has ever made too much of all the fine arts in its worship, and clearly broken the second commandment, have not Protestants in their anxiety to avoid every thing Romish in tendency, rushed to the opposite extreme, and made too little use of art for religious purposes?
All Protestants have freely used the art of engraving "to illustrate religious books and periodicals, and even the Bible itself, though the same work would give offense if painted upon the walls of a church," but why should it, if right instruction or explanation is, given from the pulpit and by religious teachers?
We admit that there are possible abuses of religious art. Immorality has been deified in art. There are obscene sculptured forms of ancient gods that make us ashamed of the race to which we belong. Some people allow art itself to become an "illegitimate means of deepening and confirming," religious convictions. Sometimes favorite religious feelings are allowed to modify the judgment as to the absolute merit of some particular form of art. In judging of works of art,. one must be careful not to be influenced unduly by his favorite religious feelings, or by his peculiar scientific turn of mind which looks only to purposes of utility.
Art has a power to falsify and degrade our conceptions of Deity. The power and fascination of the fine arts must not be allowed to limit our idea of the Divine presence to particular localities, as within shrines or grand artistic temples made comparatively dark and peculiarly impressive with sacred pictures, sculptures, and solemn peals of great organs and intoning of priests and chanting of choirs.
When art makes us believe what we would not otherwise have accepted without rational proofs, it is misapplied and dangerous. And when it is claimed that art or sacred images often turn our thoughts towards subjects of religion which we would not otherwise have thought of in the midst of our business and the hurry of life, it may be replied that such confused, familiar and accidental pieties are of very doubtful advantage at least, and the effect would be very different on different characters.
The imagination may be rightly or wrongly trained. The apostle says, "An idol is nothing," but it is possible for the unrestrained imagination or undisciplined fancy to regard an idol as something real. Are we to believe in the presence or existence of divine or other persons simply because we have secn pictures or images of them? Many, we are sure, do thus believe; but ought we not to have an intelligent faith that depends on radical evidence rather than on mere credulity or superstition?
Pure Christian art never deceives, never makes real what is only symbolic. Christian art does indeed give wings to the imagination and fancy, but only to represent in symbolism the virtues, vices, or passions. It is ever careful to preserve the distinction clear between the true and the imaginative, the real and the fanciful. Art is good when it is the work of good men who are true to nature and Revelation, without mixture of grossness, absurdity or inconsistency. Gilded images, bloody crucifixes, and all such low forms of imagery, appeal to the ignorance, dullness, and credulity of the people.
That is a low and vulgar art that only appeals to the morbid instincts and sense of horror, that paints images to look like ghastly corpses, that would forever occupy the sensibility of women, " in lamenting the sufferings of Christ, instead of preventing those of the people."
Ruskin hints a criticism on Angelo when he intimates that he might better have employed his powers and time upon the great deeds of the worthiest men, rather than " in presumptuous imagination to display the secrets of judgment or the beatitudes of eternity."