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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Religious Art

Until relatively recently in history, the church was one of the greatest inspirations for the creation of art. It was inspiring, not just because of it's rich, Biblical narration, but because it had money. Money inspires art, always has, always will. When few others could afford fine art, the Church could.  Perhaps because of this fact, aside from a few frescoes in musty catacombs, painting is a relative newcomer to the world of religious art. Not much of it existed until the last thousand years or so.  Before that there was the mosaic, and even before that, the icon. Glittering mosaics decorated church walls while more human-sized icons of religious figures and symbols were intended to inspire devotion and prayer. In both cases, it seems fair to say that religious devotion, rather than money was more likely the inspiration for such works. But the alliance between the church and art has not always been an easy one.   
Leo III base gold solidus, minted in Rome
Early on, the question arose: where does worshipping what an image is suppose to evoke end and worshipping the image itself begin? As the earliest Christian art blossomed in the decoration of religious locales, the earliest concerns regarding the idolatry these images might invoke sprouted like weeds. The matter came to a head in the year 726 when the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, Leo III, ordered the destruction of a mosaic figure of Christ over his palace gate in Constantinople, replacing it with a simple cross. Four years later he issued a similar decree forbidding the use of icons of Christ or the saints in worship services. Art, rather than inspiring worship, was creating dissension.
John of Damascus

Today we owe a certain debt of gratitude to a man known only as John of Damascus. Using a rationale based on classical Greek thought, and applying Platonic idealism to Christian principles, he argued the premise that appreciating visible beauty was a necessary step in the appreciation of God. Thus, a good picture could guide the worshipper toward God, but as a path, not as an end itself. Thanks to this man's defense of figurative art through the use of Platonic logic,  Christian art was permitted to develop with a firm, religious and philosophical base.

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