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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Evolution of Devotional Art

The changes in art and religion.
One of the things that has changed most in art over the past 500 years, especially over the past 150 years, is the nature of art having to do with the Christian religion. By the same token, there has been a tremendous change in religion itself and particularly its relationship to art. In the period during and after the Renaissance, the arts--architecture, painting, sculpture, music, literature--worked hand in hand in a symbiotic relationship responsible for some of the greatest art (though not necessarily the greatest religion) in the history of mankind. We see it today in the world's great cathedrals, in what is virtually a visual Bible of great paintings, in our hymns, in poetry, literature, sculpture, and various combinations of all of these.

Noli me Tangere, 1532-33, Hans Holbein,
a rare example of Protestant painting.
Then came the Reformation. Save for architecture, there developed a division of church and art, especially the visual arts. During this time (and ever since), religion changed as well. The Catholic side of the split narrowed its appreciation of religious art to that having directly to do with teachings and doctrine of Christ and moved toward the decorative and inspirational as opposed to the instructional. On the Protestant side of the split, religious art tended to move out of the sanctuary and into private religious devotions and from there, it has gradually faded away almost to nothing. While Catholics continue to hang images of Jesus in their homes, probably not 1 in 10 Protestants do so.

St. Bees Abbey Church, Cumberland, England, 16th century, interior.
Art survives as architecture, but otherwise banished, even as decoration.
Religious art in the home setting derives from one of the oldest Christian traditions on record, the practice of gathering and worshipping in homes. Early Christians had no churches. Nor did they have art. Art was pagan. And indeed, even after their numbers became too great to gather in homes, even the early Christian basilica churches were largely bereft of pictorial images. For almost a thousand years there was little or no Christian art to speak of - a few primitive catacomb frescos and some rare church mosaics such as Ravenna's San Vitale, being important exceptions (there may have been more but little evidence of them survives). But with the second Christian millennium came an explosion of religious art aimed at beautifying public places of worship and inspiring the worshipers within them. The heavy Romanesque style architecture in the South demanded frescoes while the ornate Gothic style in the North lent itself to sculpture and painted altarpieces.

Wilton Diptych, 1359
As is always the case, the rich are the first to acquire new luxuries, and in the early 1300s, there came the luxury of worshipping privately in their homes. England's King Richard II travelled with a folding altarpiece, the Wilton Diptych (1395), heavy with gold leaf and expensive lapis lazuli blues depicting himself, St Edmund, St John the Baptist, and St Edward the Confessor as they worship, on the opposite panel, a Madonna and Child encircled by a host of angels. During the Renaissance in Italy, the simply well-to-do might have a modest room in their homes called a "studiolo" containing a small altar, a framed image of a Madonna and Child, a crucifix, maybe a stained glass window, and perhaps an illustrated book of hours (prayer calendar). 
van Nieuwenhove Diptych, 1487, Hans Memlinc

Hans Memlinc's The van Nieuwenhove Diptych (right) dating from 1487, is an excellent example of such private devotional art. It features a panel portrait of a Madonna in contemporary dress offering a tiny apple (symbolic of man's sin) to her nude infant Son while the opposite panel depicts the owner, his Bible open before him, in formal prayer. The backgrounds are similar enough to suggest a single room.

Christ as the Man of Sorrows, ca. 1520,
Jan Mostaert
Christ as the Man of Sorrows (left), painted by Jan Mostaert (or one of his followers) around 1520, is often considered prototypical of the single panel portrait of Christ type painting we sometimes see in homes today. Derived from the altarpiece, but simplified and copied widely by artists of the era, such hand-painted images multiplied to the point that virtually anyone could afford to decorate a small corner of a room as a private place of worship. The painting is a head and shoulders depiction of an only slightly stylised Christ, crowned with thorns, his blood and tears intermingling, his hands, holding a reed in one, in the other a bundle of birch branches, are bound before him by a cord. The image was intended to invoke a direct, face-to-face encounter with the suffering of Jesus.

Today, even Catholics would find such dramatic religious art hard to live with in their homes. Many Protestants denominations today even go so far as to eschew such art in their churches. Just as religious art has changed in nature, becoming more restrained, and declining in importance, the worship experience itself has changed as well. Perhaps because of the ascendancy of universal literacy, perhaps because of the descendancy of daily, ritual prayer, perhaps because of the tendency toward a more intellectual, as opposed to emotional, type of worship, what remains of religious fine art today seems to have moved to a higher plane. It continues very often to be decorative in nature, but now seems subtler, more abstract (not just in style), less confrontational, and almost subliminal. In effect, its importance to the modern worship experience has become marginal. All of which begs the question, do we no longer need such art, or do we simply not want it? Perhaps both?

Today architecture, symbolism, and functionality dominate the art of public devotional spaces. Private devotional art is rare.


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