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What do we mean when we speak of religious art?

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Introduction

What do we mean when we speak of religious art? Do we mean that religious themes are depicted in the art? Do we mean that religious persons were the artists? Do we mean that some special religious group or church has decided that the art is orthodox and therefore official? All of these definitions have been used at one time or another to define religious art. The most common definition is that religious art is that which depicts biblical themes. Such art abounds, particularly that done in earlier centuries; but it is still prominent today. The next suggestion-that art is what religious artists do-saw its highest expression in the Renaissance when the church employed great artists who experimented with themes not only from biblical settings but from classical mythology as well. Often in history, "religious art" was what the church officially declared to be religious art. The most extreme example of this style is to be recalled in the Inquisition of the sixteenth century and in iconoclastic excesses right up to the present time. Now the fact is that the very expression religious art is problematic. Biblical themes may be used in a painting but for irreligious purposes. ...read more.

Middle

Sister Corita Kent, the famous pop artist, once said in a poster, "We have no art here. We only do the best we can." Somewhere we received the idea that art must be pretty or polished or symmetrical or restful. It may express those possibilities. But, if our definition is correct, it must also at times be ugly, rough, asymmetrical, and jarring. Why? Because men and women sense their world that way some of the time-maybe most of the time. How then are we to judge whether a work of art is a good piece of art or whether it is religious art? The answer is that this is probably an irrelevant question. The most important question is this: Is the work of art expressive of a powerful view of life and, regardless of subject matter, does it stir some religious sensitivity in the viewer? The late Paul Tillich, a great Christian theologian, suggested that a work of art could have religious subject matter and still be an irreligious statement. On the other hand, a work of art on a non-biblical subject could be expressed with such power that it would be a profoundly religious painting. ...read more.

Conclusion

That is why any attack on the artist in our culture is ultimately an attack on our own freedom to know and believe. Even Plato suggested that in his perfect Republic the artists ought to be rigorously controlled. We live in a free society; and if artists are free, they can be prophets in that society. They tell us what we may not have the imagination to see and think. They tell us secrets of our own hearts which religious traditions may not permit us to confess. In short they perform a kind of religious task for us all. They keep us open to the spirit of newness and innovation in the quest for meaning in human history and life. Without them, life would be merely the dull routine of what is apparent and not real, what is accustomed and not novel, what is required and not daring. Religion is life, and the life that is lived without questions and spiritual wrestling is really a dull life indeed. When our minds and religious senses become dull and corrupt, then the glory of God and the blazing intentions of our Lord for our lives are unable to register in our daily existence. That is why religion and art are part of the wider quest for meaning. That is why we need them both. ...read more.

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