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Christian Art

  Like all religious art, Christian art raises questions of purpose. Its original, and primary, functions were to aid devotion and to offer God the finest work a patron could commission or a craftsman or craftswoman could create. Aesthetic value was relevant, but by no means the most important factor: a plain wooden crucifix, or a scrawled outline on a wall, were just as effective as the most lavishly executed work of the finest artistic hands and minds. Iconography was more important than finish: the symbols contained in the work were what mattered, and devotional purpose outweighed anything which we might today recognize as artistic inspiration.

In most religions, art is a static phenomenon. Its styles and techniques were decided hundreds, even thousands, of years ago, and have changed little since. The art, like the symbols contained in it, is referential and eternal. But Christian art is different. From the very start it has mirrored the societies which created it, and although its symbols remain more or less the same, its appearance, styles and techniques have radically changed from century to century, country to country, almost artist to artist. This gives it a kind of richness different from the art of other religions, and has always made it particularly available to—or, depending on your point of view, the prey of—secular connoisseurs and commerce. It was a main focus for artistic and architectural patronage, productivity and development in the West and the orthodox East from the time of Christ himself until well into the 19th century, when encroaching secularism and consumerism (born of the Industrial Revolution) began to reduce its profile. (Even so, Christian iconography continued, and continues, to take its place in art, often in surprising ways—for example the use made of Christian symbols and of ideas parodied from earlier Christian artists by mid-20th century Surrealists or 1970s practitioners of ‘junk art’.) No one interested in Western art is therefore fully equipped without some knowledge of the Bible, of the iconographical traditions and transformations involved in the representation of its stories, and of Church ideas about the construction and furnishing of the House of God.

The transformation of iconography and form from the Graeco-Roman to Christianity was surprisingly smooth, no doubt because Graeco-Roman art was the natural model for Christians (themselves part of the same tradition) to adopt. Because the methodologies of Roman pagan art and architecture were adopted by the Christians (the emperor in triumph becomes Christ Triumphant, for example; the basilica becomes one layout for the church), the continuity between pagan and Christian is a long-lived strength, providing a repertoire upon which artists continue to draw.

We may view the adoption of pagan forms by Christian art alongside the transfer of power from the Roman emperor to the Papacy, in many ways its temporal as well as its spiritual successor. This provides one explanation for the bias towards continuity. An important element in the spread of Christian art is therefore the growing temporal power of the Church itself, and of monasteries, which grew in wealth and prestige during the Middle Ages. Piety (the attribute and practice needed to ensure the salvation of one\'s immortal soul) was paramount: building reflected not simply a desire to out-perform one\'s neighbours, but also to provide monuments to faith itself hence the ‘age of the cathedrals’. Enormous buildings (often quite disproportionate to the size of the local population) were erected a process which often took several generations. Pilgrimage was an important medieval institution, and the routes to important sites (such as Rome and Santiago de Compostella) still boast their sumptuous shrines.

The Church, the monasteries and the pious laity were crucial in the provision of artistic patronage, which included everything from architecture, frescoes and monumental sculpture to Books of Hours, reliquaries, and souvenirs for pilgrims. Such structures long outlasted the Middle Ages, as chapels in the churches of Florence, Siena or Bavaria will attest.

The Reformation provided both a crisis and a fillip for Christian art and architecture. The Church of Rome commissioned buildings and decoration in an attempt (the Counter-Reformation) to stem the tide of Protestant propaganda. The reformers viewed ‘catholic’ iconography and power structures with contempt (witness the Wars of Religion, or the Commonwealth in England, both of which saw the destruction of much ‘idolatrous’ art). As a result, completely different styles of Protestant iconography were developed (for example, Rembrandt) which placed greater emphasis on the private reading of the Bible than on public demonstrations of faith.

The Enlightenment, at least in Protestant hands, provided a rational challenge to Christian art which decreased the apparent importance of the latter. Although it is probably not the case that the quantity of Christian art declined (as can be seen by the Gothic Revival, and the enormous number of devotional pictures and prints produced in 19th-century France), in our perception its relative importance declined before the onslaught of 19th-century positivism, itself a child of the Enlightenment. Courbet, for example, refused to paint what he could not see, and so never painted angels.

While there have been important revivals and commissions (many of them as a result of the devastation of two world wars), Christian art has now unquestionably lost its once-central position in the hierarchy of genres. PD KMcL

Further reading David F. Martin, Art and the Religious Experience.



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