Art & Religion
This is a guest post written by an anonymous contributor
“Art and religion are, then, two roads by which men escape from circumstance to ecstasy. Between aesthetic and religious rapture there is a family alliance. Art and religion are means to similar states of mind.”
— Clive Bell
The purpose of great art is to raise people from the mundane and get them, if only momentarily, looking upwards to higher forms and to the possibilities of what lies beyond the bounds of our comprehension. In this way, religion and art are one and the same; a call to transcend the expressible and unite us with the eternal forms which they represent.
In the classical world, artists were believed to be divinely inspired and in direct communication with the gods. The likes of Homer and Virgil invoked the Muses as prelude to their epic poetry. Likewise, the ancient Greek tragedies of the three great tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, were performed in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine, madness and religious ecstasy. The gods were frequently represented on stage, such as the duplicitous Dionysus in The Bacchae and Athena and Apollo in the ‘deus ex machina’ resolution to The Oresteia trilogy of Euripides.
Similarly, The Holy Spirit filled the Prophets of the Bible with divine inward visions and mystical revelations, imparting them wisdom to foretell future events and even inducing conversion, such as that of Saul of Tarsus (later to become known as Paul the Apostle) on the road to Damascus. The saints of the Gospels were often portrayed writing the scriptures under the guidance of an angel, as seen in Caravaggio’s The Inspiration of Saint Matthew.
Piety was considered a prerequisite for creating great art; the degree to which the artist is in harmony with the ‘logos’ or divine order of the universe determined their ability to capture the essence of the three transcendentals: the good, the beautiful and the true. Plato recognized the ability of art to influence our emotions and behaviour and therefore considered certain forms of art dangerous. In The Republic, Plato asserted that particular types of music helped to set the soul in harmony, whereas others were corruptive and conducive to promiscuity and disorder. Modern science and the use of sound therapy has confirmed this to be the case as various recent studies have concluded that listening to classical music can reduce cortisol levels, the hormone responsible for stress, as well as improve sleep patterns and strengthen the immune system.
Art has even been known to trigger religious or spiritual experiences in some people, such as those recorded by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience. A rare condition known as Stendhal syndrome, named after the 19th-century French writer Marie-Henri Beyle (better known by his pen name Stendhal), has been reported by individuals when being exposed to objects, artworks or phenomena of great beauty. Stendhal writes of his experience while visiting the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, where Niccolò Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Galileo Galilei are buried:
“I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves’. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”
The use of art in places of worship spans millennia, providing visual reminders of the deities, saints, characters and stories from their respective religions, ranging from the enchanting wall paintings and statues of Ancient Egypt to the majestic Sistine Chapel of the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. Awe-inspiring works such as these give us a sense of the transcendent and set the standard for the cultural and religious aesthetics for future generations.
As the Western world has become more secular, the quality of fine art and conventional ideals of beauty have declined due to the spread of post-Enlightenment relativism. Modern art has largely become an ‘emperor’s new clothes’ exercise of self-congratulatory pretensions as exemplified by a group of Dutch YouTube pranksters who placed a generic €10 IKEA print in the Museum for Modern Art in Arnhem, The Netherlands. Supposed art ‘experts’ praised the cheap print, calling it ‘shocking’ and claimed that the artist had a ‘beautiful spirit’. One gallery viewer estimated the piece to be worth €2.5 million. Without a common religious and cultural rallying point, civilizations inevitably decay into an apathetic ‘anything goes’ hotchpotch, leaving the people vulnerable to any number of subversions.
Art and religion provide for us a cornerstone to inspire and elevate us to higher states of being, enlivening the spirit and establishing a shared aesthetic for people to live by. They give us joie de vivre and a sense of purpose without which life would become dull and morbid. Great cultural icons, whether one is interested in them or not, are a part of the fabric that gives an individual life some sort of meaning and function as signposts from the past pointing us towards a metaphysical reality outside of our everyday life.
“The moment one touches a transcendental, one touches being itself, a likeness of God, an absolute, that which ennobles and delights our life; one enters into the domain of spirit.”
— Jacques Maritian