Monday, 26 May 2014

Religious works in a secular world

Antique Buddha in an interior alongside contemporary painting. Image from

Following on from the last topic, I am going to explore the relation between religious works, that is, images and sculptures intended as aids in worship, and the category of objects termed ‘art’. I am interested in the question whether religious works ought to be treated in a way that differs from the treatment of secular art. Religious images and sculptures are frequently found displayed as art in museums and in people's homes: a European collector in London might have within his home a Renaissance oil painting of a Madonna and Child, a bronze sculpture of the Buddha, and a fragmented marble sculpture of an ancient Greek deity, amid Post-Impressionist paintings and Louis XVI furniture. Is it appropriate to bring sacred objects into a secular setting, for secular use? 

17th century Cambodian Buddha alongside Hoffman chairs. Image from

Art has sometimes been defined as being characterised by a lack of practical function. Yet to a believer, what is more vitally functional than depictions of the deity, inspiring behaviour and thoughts that follow the model provided by the deity, or than objects enabling proper devotion, on which the god's pleasure and therefore the believer's wellbeing and prosperity depend? A Christian gazing at a depiction of the Madonna and Child in a church is more likely seeking strength in faith during a time of trial than admiring the painter's composition or skill in rendering a likeness. A Hindu bringing food to a statue of Ganesha is more likely seeking divine favour and to draw on the deity's qualities for his own actions than concerned with the use of colour or the dynamism of the representation. Religious works therefore have a function that differentiates them from secular works: they somehow connect the believer with the divine.

Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Leda and the Swan’. Image from

da Vinci’s ‘Madonna of the Yarnwinder’. Note the similarity in the rendering of the landscape and the posture of the children. Image from

Yet the aesthetic properties of religious paintings and sculptures are the same as those of secular paintings and sculptures. Objects in both categories are man-made, requiring the same skills and materials. Those who painted or sculpted religious works often also made works with secular topics: for example, Leonardo da Vinci and Jan van Eyck. For a long time in history, with the Church being such a wealthy and influential patron of the Arts, artists' commissions were frequently religious works that would serve to inspire in church-goers the fear of God and respect for the institution that claimed legitimation by His Son (see Matthew 16:18) and power to communicate with Him—as much as commissions for portraits of wealthy clergymen, politicians and merchants or works on themes chosen by them, such items serving as markers of status. With this in mind, it becomes more difficult to argue that paintings and sculptures intended for religious use are somehow different from those considered 'art' and treated as such.

Jan van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini Portrait’. Image from

van Eyck’s ‘Virgin and Child Reading’. Note the emphasis on domesticity in both, the typically Flemish interior and costumes of both, and the similarity in the faces of the female figures. Image from

Perhaps it is the intended purpose or meaning of the aesthetic properties of a religious work that separate it from other ‘art’? The beauty of a painting of the Annunciation is intended to convey the perfection of God and the purity of the Virgin.1 Is it reductionist to speak of such a painting on the same terms as a secular work, and is it disrespectful to its intended spiritual richness to exhibit it in a collection amid secular works?

As far as 'dead' religions go, it is not surprising that, the deities being no longer worshipped, their religious paraphernalia, including depictions of the deities, should be seen as 'curiosities' or 'collectibles', in the way that a now-useless ancient agricultural tool would be, and that they might feature as part of a collector's items and be appreciated for their enduring aesthetic qualities rather than any past religious power. But what about living religions? And in particular, living religions that are not the religion of the collector?

The Siva Nataraja. Image from

In a documentary about the recovery of the Siva Nataraja by the Hindu temple in India from which it had been stolen for sale as an 'antiquity' in the USA, a monk from the temple pondered aloud: 'What would non-Hindus want to do with a statue of our deity?'.2 To him, the statue was not just a pretty object, but a physical manifestation of the deity on earth - and not just any deity, but one who dances the world into existence and can dance it to oblivion. The idea that a western collector would use it to decorate his home was unthinkable. Yet this statue was worth millions on the art and antiquities market, with good reason: the craftsmanship is stunning, the human form elegant, its facial expression serene and wise, the religious belief it relates to a poetic one. This is the case with many works of art: the expressions of spiritual serenity on the faces depicted, combined with the artistic beauty (and therefore worth) of the works, make them appealing additions to the interiors of collectors.

A Madonna and Child statue from a convent, for sale online. Image from

For Macgaffey, art is 'the fabricated minus the useful', therefore 'a 13th century Madonna becomes a work of art' when it enters a context where it no longer has efficacy as an aid to worship.3 As the number of people who say they are not religious increases, and with the Church of England website reporting that ‘around twenty Church of England church buildings are closed for worship each year’,4 it is not surprising that the contents of churches should increasingly be found on the market (see the website selling items from churches, convents etc and whose range of clientele includes religious organisations and individuals looking for a fun feature in their living room), and that there are not enough religious buyers to provide these items with a new religious setting. The painting's value as a work of art enables it to enter the secular setting of the art market. From there, it can be bought by a Christian for use in a sacred context (though I haven't encountered an example of this, perhaps because it would be hard for a religious institution to justify spending large amounts of money on a painting and on its subsequent protection from theft and deterioration instead of on the needs of the flock), or by an individual for use in a private secular context, or by a secular institution. If a museum acquires an antique Hindu sculpture, how should it treat it? Should it request that non-Hindu visitors behave 'in a manner that Hindu adherents would deem respectful'?5 How should museum staff react if Hindus are found praying in front of the object? Should they allow such behaviour, encourage it, or ensure that it is excluded from the secular context of the museum where it might interfere with non-Hindu's appreciation of the object as art? In the late 1980s, an exhibition of Greek icons and frescoes in an American museum was the scene of religious devotion, with visitors kissing the artwork exhibited: these religious works were still treated as sacred even in their new secular context. In contrast, tourists enter churches, temples and mosques worldwide as they would a museum or historic house (sometimes showing little concern for observance of the dress code of the religious institution), admiring the religious frescoes, paintings and statues for their aesthetic properties and historic associations rather than their religious power.6

Tourists in Istanbul’s Suleimaniye Mosque (note that not all women have covered their heads as required by the Muslim dress-code). Image from

This leads us onto another question: do secular and religious artworks produce widely differing reactions in the viewer? Sacredness can be central to a secular artist's intention and aesthetic expression. Mondrian and Kandinsky, among other artists, were fascinated by the spiritual and hoped to produce art that could guide the viewer into the spiritual dimension (an ideal particularly relevant in a context of decreasing religious faith and increasing materialism).7 Much religious art shares themes with secular art that arguably relate less to theological truths than to the human condition (whether seen within a religious context or not). Francis Bacon's and Edvard Munch's paintings of modern angst are just as powerful expressions of the human experience of despair as Hieronymus Bosch’s depiction of hell.

Munch’s ‘Scream’. Image from

Bosch’s ‘Harrowing of Hell’. Image from

Do the countless paintings of the Madonna and Child differ hugely from the works in this year’s photographic exhibition about motherhood?

Elino Carucci’s ‘Elinor Carucci Feeding Emanuelle From a Plastic Bottle’. Image from

Hanna Putz’s ‘Untitled’. Image from

Is Filippo Lippi's painting ‘The Madonna and Child with Two Angels’, modelled on his lover the nun Lucrezia Buti, a theological exploration of Mary's faith in God, or is it a man's portrait of the object of his (earthly) love? If the latter, how does the expression on the Madonna’s face compare with that of Elsbeth in Holbein’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Wife and Two Children’ (which draws on the genre of the Madonna and Child)?

Holbein’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Wife and Two Children’. Image from 

Is it significant that Matisse's designs for the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence are stylistically and thematically similar to his secular works in later life: cut-outs, mainly of algae-like shapes in painstakingly thought-out compositions and beautiful combinations of colours? If works for the Chapel project can be exhibited alongside and collected in the same way as Matisse's secular work (as they are right now at the Tate Modern), why should other religious works not be exhibited and collected as artworks?

Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, stainglass window by Matisse. Image from

Matisse’s ‘La Gerbe’, in the courtyard of owner Frances Brody. Image from   

It is surely positive that religious works can still be appreciated in an increasingly secular society, albeit in a different (secular) capacity, and that they be preserved rather than destroyed. It is wonderful that people from a certain culture and religious (or non-religious) background can appreciate the beauty of works produced in a culture and religious tradition vastly different from their own. What is problematic is that the art market’s demand for religious material may have links with thefts and lootings from religious sites and with damages to religious buildings for the purpose of removing saleable features (a paradox whereby beautiful buildings, works of art in themselves as the sum of many parts, are shorn of their artwork in order to feed demand for art): examples include the Siva Nataraja mentioned above, the 6th century mosaics from the Church of Panagia Kanakaria in Cyprus, sculptures of deities adorning Cambodian temples (beheaded- the head being easier to carry than the whole body and worth enough on its own), and countless other religious sites. I find myself wholly in favour of the collecting and displaying of religious artwork alongside secular art and in secular contexts: it adds variety to daily life and interiors, and encourages tolerance of and appreciation for other cultures and religious beliefs and their expression. What I find intolerable are cases where living religious traditions are being butchered for the sake of the art market: such actions are not only hugely disrespectful to people of different faiths and an affront to inter-cultural appreciation; they are also crimes against art.

Figure on a Cambodian Temple damaged by looters. Image from:

What are your views on the nature of religious works within the wider corpus of 'art'? How do you feel about religious art being exhibited in secular contexts?

1. See Davies in my previous article
2. ABC television programme Four Corners

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