17 September 2015

Author : ella-bell

Contemporary art, in its various forms, does not usually need to have a clear meaning or function for us to consider it intelligent, beautiful, informative or challenging. But this is a relatively new development. Historically, in the Western world at least, art has served a clear purpose; as Christianity spread across Europe, throughout the Medieval ages and into the Renaissance, art illustrated its religious teachings. Society, culture, education and social life were framed and dominated by religion during this period; religious art was thus considered the greatest, as not only did it honour God but it also depicted stories from the Bible, helping to spread and sustain the Christian message.
Fra Angelico, La Anunciación, c. 1430-1432.
There was a very firm threefold guideline as to the function, and proper visual appearance, of religious paintings, particularly during the Renaissance period. These artworks had to meet institutional needs, and promote both intellectual and spiritual interest.
Religious art had to convert religious stories into a visual language, in order to be understood by the general populous, of which a majority were illiterate. Secondly, these artworks had to be emotionally moving, for viewers to really feel these stories, and respond in an emotional, spiritual manner. Thirdly, they had to be memorable, vivid and clear, so that stories from the Bible would have a lasting impression, and stay in the minds of the viewer.
Yet, during this time, people were encouraged to imagine religious stories on their own terms; they would attach faces and places they knew to religious characters and locations, in order to remember the stories more vividly. No artist can compete with the internal particularity of private visualisation. How many times have books been made into films, for us to watch in dismay as our characters become unrecognisable to us?
Consequently, a technique used by Renaissance artists was to ensure they depicted figures in religious paintings as generic, interchangeable and unbranded. This technique sustained the active, two-way relationship between painter and viewer – that is, between the artist’s exterior visualisations of the religious story, and the public’s very personal, interior visualisations. The painter had to compliment these visions, and not compete with them; a kind of cooperation between painter and public was depended on.
Paolo Veronese, The Resurrection of Christ, c. 1570.
Still, Christian art demands a specific correctness and trueness to the story, especially in the depiction of the figure of Christ. He was a figure drastically less open to public interpretation and inner visualisation than other religious figures; an established tradition dictates that Christ looked a certain way, as was firmly described in an apparent eye witness account – hence the shoulder length curly hair, the beard, etc. Christian art of the Renaissance period had to be correct, adhering to the rules set out by the Bible and the institution of the Church.
Even now, I think that there is a strong influence of ‘correctness’ in religious art.
Take, for example, this 1951 painting of Jesus Christ by Salvador Dali.
Salvador Dali, Christ of Saint John on The Cross, c. 1951.

The image depicts the crucified Christ soaring into darkness; the perspective is surreal and dizzying, it is mesmeric, beautiful, dreamy. Yet it was met with huge criticism, denounced for being offensive and untrue.
In Dali’s image, Christ appears transformed. We do not see the suffering of his crucifixion; there are no nails hammered through his wrists or feet, and he does not bleed. He is suspended, defying gravity, radiating an inhuman and otherworldly kind of power. He is muscular, strong and healthy, in contrast to the usual image of his emaciation. His hair is cropped short, again in contrast to the shoulder-length curls we normally associate with the figure of Christ. We do not even see his face; Dali invites us instead to imagine it, welcoming inner visualisation. As I understand it, to apply this technique to the depiction of Christ is an unspeakable notion in the tradition of Christian art. However, by expressing spirituality in a way that breaks traditional religious frameworks, we can – as both artists and viewers – perhaps gain a deeper understanding of one’s own subjective, inner relationship with the sacred.

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