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Reaching God: How art helps the world relate to the divine

A cornerstone of civilization, religion, stimulates creativity and culture in all corners of the world by becoming the spiritual impulse that conjoins humanity with divinity through spiritual experience, ceremony and mythology. In its evolution, art has been and continues to be a constitutive factor.

Through visible expression and form, art imparts meaning and value to anthropic aspirations, encounters, and narratives, and simultaneously orients the human within the horizon of a community, world, and cosmos. Thereby, art renders the human situation—origin, existence, death, and afterlife—key considerations of all religions, comprehensible through visual representations. Essentially, as 'visible' religion, art communicats religious beliefs, customers and values through iconography and depictions of the human body.

This article describes historical and present-day intercommunions between art and religion and the impact of these intercommunions on individual and communal life.

1. Art, a Bible for the poor

In contrast to religions like Hinduism and Eastern Christianity which favored the primacy of the 'image', mainstream Judeo-Christian and Islamic practices preferred the primacy of the 'word' and were predicated upon the authority of the written text, or a series of texts, not upon the image. Disciplined reading of these canons provided the foundation for study, debate and interpretation, processes that allowed scholars to initiate and repeat spiritual moments. The 'voice of authority', formed from a summation of these spiritual moments of scholars trickled down to the masses enabling them to practice religion. By bypassing study, debate and interpretation, key components of religious practice, however, the masses would often find themselves not relating to the authority.

Transcribed commentaries and illustrations provided by art as an accompaniment to scripture were instrumental in addressing this need for relatedness. These Biblical artworks were especially created within churches and cathedrals, individually or collectively, to illustrate the teachings of the scriptures for a largely illiterate population. Some installations which were especially popular in medieval Europe include, the Crucifix, painted depictions of the Gospel, painted or sculpted depictions of the Stations of the Cross, and Biblical motifs in the form of Stained-glass installations.

Stained-glass installation at St. Mary's Chilham, UK

Take for instance, the stained-glass installation in the East Window of St. Mary's Chilham in the UK. The five sections depict:

  • Jesus, in a state of agony of mind, prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. He asks his disciples Peter, James and John to wait nearby, but they fall asleep, thus "abandoning" him. Below - Joseph the Dreamer is put down a well by his own brothers and abandoned.

  • Jesus is made to carry his cross on the way to the execution place of Golgotha. Below - Isaac, led by his father Abraham, carries the firewood, not knowing that his father plans to sacrifice him.

  • Jesus is crucified. Below - The Israelites at the Passover slay a sacrificial lamb and paint its blood on the door lintel as a sign to the angel of the Lord.

  • Jesus is resurrected from the dead. Below - Jonah is spat out by a great fish which had swallowed him three days earlier.

  • Jesus ascends to Heaven. Below - Elijah is carried up to Heaven by angels.

Beyond simply illustrating a Biblical story from the New testament, the sections are also vertically paired with corresponding Old Testament scenes which prefigure and predict these events enabling the illiterate to cross reference and link sections of the Bible, a task that would have otherwise been delegated exclusively to scholars.

2. Art, an indispensable tool in the inter-cultural transfer of ideas

Continuing with the theme of relatedness, art was clearly an indispensable tool in facilitating the international spread of religion in the 1400's. Complex teachings, commentaries, ideas and doctrines were further complicated by the transmutations and permutations of cultural history and geographic variations. Therefore, schooling newly contacted cultures on the finer points of textual exigesis required a medium that effectively cut across these divides. In this regard the art forms of icons, devotional hymns, liturgical dance, folk art, poetry and morality tales proffered an inclusive and comprehensive reading of early religion.

The Ramakien, Thailand's national epic, is a excellent example of art being used to transcend cultural divides. Derived from the Hindu epic, Ramayana, the Ramakien features a story that is identical to that of the Ramayana with many other aspects being transposed into a Thai context using the medium of art. These aspects include clothing, weapons, topography, elements of nature, all of which were described in the traditional Thai style. The Ramakien provided the Thai with representations of various spirits, which by complementing the traditional Thai beliefs of animism, helped the Thai adopt Hinduism.

A scene from the Ramakien featuring Hanuman on his chariot at the Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok

3. Religious art, a tool to justify moral redemption

Although many Enlightenment philosophers opposed slavery in the 17th century, it was the Christian activists, attracted by strong religious elements, who initiated and organized the 'Abolitionist' movement. Leveraging the freedom of expression in the Western world, these activists worked to bring the theoretical Christian view to the masses in hopes of suppressing the slave trade and reforming morals. Art was a key asset to bring about the moral suasion of a populace that had been born into a system that was fundamentally pro-slavery.

The Liberator masthead featuring the redeemed Jesus liberating a black slave and condemning a white master

Art enabled these activists to tactfully avoid direct call-to-actions in speech and text. By depicting Biblical illustrations such as the redeemed Jesus (pictured above) who died for the sins of all, the activists were able to subtly hint at themes of equality and justice being essential for Christian life. By drawing authority from recognized powers through art, activists were able to justify the repentance that was needed from the white population to bring about the emancipation of blacks and the end of slavery.

4. Art as a medium for religious communication

The response to religious art is predicated upon individual faith, pronounced dogma, religious attitudes toward the image, and aesthetic quality projected by the work of art. The operative principle should be that as the embodiment of the sacred, a religious image provides for immediate and permanent access to the deity. Such a response, however, would require the believer's receptivity to the power of images and the primacy of sacred nature. The practical reality is that even one work of religious art can garner a diversity of responses, each of which is dependent upon the believer's preconceptions regarding religious encounter and the image. As an example of this multiplicity of response to one image, consider that of a depiction of the Hindu Lord Shiva, Nataraja, the divine dancer who creates and destroys the universe with each footstep.

Nataraja, a depiction of the Hindu Lord Shiva

The Hindu Lord Shiva is invited to enter an image of himself at the beginning of ritual prayer or ceremonies; his presence may be perpetual or fleeting, although the physical image endures through the work of art. Throughout the ritual both Shiva and his sacred energy reside within the image but depart when the ritual comes to a close. The image remains as a visual aid for personal devotion and prayer and as a visual remembrance of the god's activity so that Shiva's sacred presence is known even in his absence. The artistic rendering of Shiva functions as a visual reminder of the divinity's existence rather than an embodiment or temporary receptacle of the sacred; it thereby becomes a centering point for meditation, prayer, ritual, or religious experience. For many devotees, such an image is simply the point of initiation toward their individual "goal" to transcend materiality and to ascend to a mystical state of imageless union with the divine. Other believers find such an image to be simply a pedagogical object but not relevant for personal prayer, devotions, or mystical experiences. For an iconoclast, such an image of Shiva Nataraja should be denied, if not destroyed, as much out of a fear of idolatry as a simple distrust of images.

What is most significant in the human response to religious art is that even a minimal response provides an entry into the experience of or participation in divine power and energy. Works of religious art, for believers, are not simply material objects but mediators of spiritual energies. Simultaneously as efficacious location and a distancing from devotees, sacred space is created by the presence of a religious image. Recognized as a religious image in many religions, the human body is identified as a reflection of the divine bodies of the gods and goddesses in Classical Greece and as an object of glorification in certain Hindu sects and African traditions. Thereby, the response of the human body to religious art provides an aesthetic channel for devotions, contemplation, prayer, and worship.

5. Art as a medium to draw religious abstractions

It's often seen how great religious literary works which once were indispensable sources of knowledge lose relevance over successive generations and become relegated to the archives. This is primarily because the context within which the text, especially stories, are written are subject to the limitations of time making it difficult for successive generations of believers to put the text to practice. Yet, time after time, experiments in individual morality have resulted in disaster causing more and more people to pick up these texts again to build collective morality, derive meaning, and improve lives.

In this regard, art, especially an allegory, is an especially effective medium to help the human mind draw practicable and relevant abstractions from religious text. By exploring religious themes through relatable characters and scenarios, allegories are able to deliver a broader message about real-world issues and occurrences.

Take for example 4-painting series, 'The Voyage of Life', by Thomas Cole, a 19th century Hudson-river school artist, which depicts a voyager who travels in a boat on a river through the mid-19th-century American wilderness. In each painting the voyager rides the boat on the River of Life accompanied by a guardian angel. The landscape, each reflecting one of the four seasons of the year, plays a major role in conveying the story. With each installment the boat's direction of travel is reversed from the previous picture. In childhood, the infant glides from a dark cave into a rich, green landscape. As a youth, the boy takes control of the boat and aims for a shining castle in the sky. In manhood, the adult relies on prayer and religious faith to sustain him through rough waters and a threatening landscape. Finally, the man becomes old and the angel guides him to heaven across the waters of eternity. Through this allegory, Cole is able to cover the Christian doctrines of manifest destiny and free will, which if considered through Biblical parables written a millennium back might be difficult to relate to.

It can then be safely concluded that art is an imaged reflection, prophecy, and witness to human experience and religious values as well as an expression of culture. The topic of art and religion continues to entice consideration and to adapt itself to the transformations and permutations of scholarly concerns. The call continues among a new generation of young scholars to define the field and to adopt a methodology. The field of study identified as art and religion continues to survive despite its lack of a recognized methodology or academic vocabulary. Art, like religion, defies categorization and universal definition. Art and religion are inexorably interconnected throughout human history and human creativity.


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