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Are you being immature about Christian and religious art?

Carivaggio-crucifixion-of-st-peter-composition-study

Are you being immature about Christian and religious art?

To prefix this article, I’ll admit that I spent the majority of my life until now being dismissive of religious art. Travelling through Italy especially, I got sick of seeing Christian art and crucifixion paintings everywhere I went. I considered the art collections a boring celebration of religion. Wanting to rebel against that, I decided to start dismissing religious art. I was wrong to do that.

Why do you dismiss religious art?

When I was young, I went to a Christian school and so it was a requirement to be Christian. I would get taken to church when I was young and be forced to listen to a boring man talk about things I didn’t care about. Safe to say, I decided religion and Christianity weren’t for me from a young age. When I began the typical teenage rebellion, that included anything Christian.

I think we all have similar stories. When we enter adulthood, those of us who aren’t religious often hold on to that rebellion when it comes to religion. Personally I don’t see any problem with that rebellion when it comes to issues in the present day. I’ll leave that idea there though because I’m not interested in discussing the politics behind religion here.

It only struck me recently that dismissing art from centuries ago just because it is religious is foolish. Dismissing a painting from the renaissance isn’t proving anything to anybody. Locking that painting away for only Christian eyes to see or ‘burning it’ is even more foolish.

Why appreciate Christian art?

This religious story in particular dominated the western world for centuries. People were so obsessed with this story that they commissioned countless artists to dedicate their lives to depicting it.

Through the eras of Christian art, we can see techniques come and go, movements begin and end. It is a goldmine of art history and theory. Sure, after seeing 100 crucifixion paintings it gets boring. Anything would. Yet such typical scenes from the Bible offer a reference point for anybody looking to compare art from different centuries.

Earliest known depiction of crucifixion 2nd century ce
Left: Earliest known depiction of crucifixion 2nd century ce. Right – tracing.

Take for example the earliest depiction of the crucifixion (that I could find). It’s from the 2nd century CE (at the time of writing 2,017 years ago). Interestingly Jesus has been drawn as a donkey. Though my evil inner self finds this a little funny, I’m looking more at the basic way in which it was rendered. Using this same basic scene from the Bible, I can follow the advances in art, all the way to people like Raphael in 1502, a master in every sense.

Seeing how different artists and masters tackled the same idea and scene can be very interesting. It’s an invaluable insight into how techniques developed over time. However much you might prefer Fantasy Artworks from books like Lord of the Rings, they can’t offer the same range of art history as the Bible can.

Christian and religious art is just art

Yes these paintings are based on the Bible and yes there are present day believers that you believe are foolish. Yet it is you who is the fool if you believe there is no value in religious artwork. If you’re anything like I was, you probably don’t dismiss art based on the ancient Greek or Pagan religions. Art based on those religions is permissible because they have passed into mythology. There aren’t enough believers left for us to feel repulsed or affected by it.

What can artist’s gain from studying religious art?

What is the difference between studying how two different artists dealt with composition? Let’s take Caravaggio and Edward Hopper. Religion vs modern life.

Study of composition in Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St Peter 1601
Study of composition in Edward Hopper’s Room in New York 1932

If our goal is to learn more about composition and become a better artist, there is no reason to study one of these over the other. I’m just studying the composition. Whether or not we are Christian shouldn’t matter.

We should take what we can from whatever we are looking at. So the next time you find yourself in a gallery full of old Christian art, try to look past the fact that it is religious. Find something interesting about the composition, colour theory, hand shapes, gestures or rendering. Whatever you decide to look for, you’ll be learning from masters.

Yet… there are reasons to criticise Christian art

Men only

Though it isn’t a problem confined to Christian art, one obvious drawback is that you are mostly going to be looking at men’s work rather than women’s. This lack of female representation is a limitation in studying historical art. There are exceptions, yet they are so few and so underrated compared to men’s work that you are unlikely to pass them in most old art galleries.

Be critical of what you are looking at

Le Sueur's Saint Bernard is-Carried to heaven 1645
Le Sueur’s Saint Bernard is-Carried to heaven 1645

Christian art is a treasure trove of ridiculous acting, terrible posing and laughable plausibility. In this article I’m trying to tell you to find the merits of religious art. Yet sometimes no matter how well rendered or finished the final piece is, it deserves criticism.

Take this painting I saw at the Louvre recently by Le Sueur. The reason I took a photo of it is because I find it funny… in a bad way. He’s a master and rendered this painting to perfection. Yet it’s laughable. What I see is a demented old man being carried by babies into the sky, with no regard for his weight. Whether or not I consider that weightlessness was the intention here, I still find it ridiculous.

I can consider the composition, rendering skill etc of such a painting of course… but why bother when there are literally hundreds of other better examples of Christian art in the Louvre. Maybe you’ll disagree with me and find this painting exceptional. My point is, find paintings that impress you. If there are others you think are bad, consider what about them turns you off. That will tell you something about your own tastes.

Feature film animator.

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