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Religious Art

  Religious art, in all traditions, from aboriginal cave paintings to Mantegna, from Cycladic figurines to carvings of Shiva dancing in the circle of fire, raises one immediate question: what is it for? The same can be asked of religious examples of the other arts: Indonesian dance-dramas, for instance, or Bach\'s B minor Mass. Are they created for the purposes of devotion and religious instruction, for aesthetic enjoyment, or for both at once? Clearly, a large proportion of religious art is mainly functional: a temple statue or Lutheran chorale exists, or at least was created, primarily to guide and aid worship. The ornate images in many Christian churches sequences, showing the Stations of the Cross, for example, or the Miracles of St Francis, were made to be what the Church called a Biblia Pauperum (‘paupers\' Bible’); a version of Scripture for those unable to read. There is also the matter of glorifying the divine: religious art is often rich and aesthetically satisfying because both the commissioning authorities and the craftsmen and women wanted it to be the best they could provide. Devotional purposes were not hindered by lavishness; indeed, they might even be enhanced.

The tendency to lavishness has, however, led in many cases to religious art becoming an object of wonder in its own right, divorced from its original purpose. Christian Books of Hours, for example, originally texts to assist private devotion, became so beautifully illustrated that by the late Middle Ages in Europe they were among the most sumptuous possessions an aristocrat might own. Krishna images, or bracelets engraved with the opening of the Qur\'an, similarly, began to be appreciated, and traded, for their beauty alone, with religious function playing a decidedly secondary role. It was as if people liked to own art which reminded them of their religious beliefs, rather than channelling or expressing them and once this happens, the gate is wide open for secular appreciation of the objects for their own sakes, and for commerce. Nowadays statues of Lord Buddha are owned and ‘enjoyed’ worldwide, by people who have no idea what Buddhism means or is; Palestrina\'s Masses are more often sung in concert halls, to paying audiences, than they are heard in church; Far Eastern sacred dramas, or the ceremonies of aboriginal peoples, are danced and sung for tourists. Religious art has taken its place in that huge museum of the world\'s treasures round which we cultural tourists all process—and the questions remain: is this what the art is really for, is true religious art really ‘art’ at all, and if we bastardize its true function by the use we now make of it, does this matter, and if so how and why? KMcL



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