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Are There Rules for "Religious Art?"

01/08/2013 Comments (83)

I may have  committed  some . . . light heresy on my post about the Finding in the Temple last week.  That wasn't my intention, of course.  Show me that the Church teaches something else besides what I say, and I'm really not going to put up a fight!  I wasn't trying to teach doctrine, but to share a moderately helpful insight about my personal spiritual life that I gained while listening to the Gospel at Mass.  Readers, always remember:  If my name had letters after it, my signature would say, "Simcha Fisher, L.S.S." for "Layman Saying Stuff."  Caveat lector.

When you're responding to the non-fictional written word, you are within your rights to say either, "Wow, you're right!" or "No, that's false," especially when the author is blabbing about stuff that has been thoroughly worked over by theologians for hundreds of years.

But what about when you're responding to art?  There is another kettle of fish.  At this time of year, everybody is passing around what appears to them to be fine works of art depicting the events in the Bible. One of the pieces I saw passed around is "The Adoration of the Magi" by portrait artist Tai-Shan Shierenberg

It's an odd, compelling piece, and it got me to thinking about religious art.  People have different expectations of religious art and secular art, and rightly so.

Now, some folks apply an insanely rigorous standards to religious art.  I stumbled across a blog post that heaped scorn and disapprobation on a children's book, because the illustrator drew snow on the ground near the stable where Baby Jesus was born.   Snow!  Even though it doesn't actually snow in Bethlehem!!!1!  The blogger didn't actually call the book "heretical," but she implied that it ought to be kept out of the hands of impressionable youngsters.

That is a person who is mightily confused about art.  While art can certainly be used as a methodical teaching tool (as with an anatomy textbook, or a schematic for a dryer switch), the level of slavishly factual accuracy is not what makes a piece of art either good or worthless.  Heck,  the history of artistic detail-fudging is as old as the Bible itself.

Most of us are fine with anachronisms in religious art, though we may not realize it.  It's easier to stomach anachronisms or factual inaccuracies when the updating that the artist did is sufficiently far in the past that the whole thing, historical reality and anachronistic artistic liberty and all, are equally safely Long Ago. 

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It doesn't bother us,here, that Mary and Joseph are Dutch, because even the Dutch don't dress like this anymore.

But we get a little nervous when we see religious figures wearing clothes that might be bopping around in our own dryers right now.  Our sensibilities tell us it's disrespectful to show Jesus wearing pants and a modern shirt;

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but this kind of artistic puritanicalism is pure silliness.  Artists have been dressing Mary, Jesus and the saints in contemporary clothes for centuries.  And surely, if Jesus were a carpenter today, he wouldn't show up for work in sandals and a robe. 

Some people will argue that it's all right to update some aspects of the scene, to "bring it home;"  but that, in order to qualify as religious art, it must -- absolutely must -- retain some traditional religious symbolism.

And so this lovely piece by John Collier

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may be jarring to some, but at least it's easy to see that this is the Annunciation:  angel, pot of lilies, blue dress, echos of Fra Angelico and all.  It may not be to everyone's taste, but you'd be hard pressed to make the case that it's heretical --  that it actually teaches something false about the Faith (and many will agree that it brings a fresh and wonderful insight to a mystery that can become stale, to our ears and eyes, with less imaginative repetition).

But what happens when we not only update clothes and hair and remove the easily-recocognizable symbols, but go a little further?  This, I argue, is what artist Tai-Shan Schierenberg has done in "The Adoration of the Magi,"

and I believe that he's made a work of art which is not religious at all, despite its title.  It's a good piece, but it's secular.  Why?  Because of where the focus is.

If you will permit a short sidetrack, let me ask you something.  The saints are all different from each other, right?  Some are scholars, some are simple, some are strict, some are merry, some are stoics, some are complainers, and some are downright scary -- but they all have something in common:  they point to Christ.  That is their purpose in life, and that is why we revere them:  because their lives are devoted to leading people to Christ.  The saints might be interesting in themselves, but they would be horrified if someone became so devoted to them that they became distracted from the soul's true work, which is coming closer to God.

The same is true for religious art.  Some of it is stark, some gentle, some lovely, some weird, and some of it just plain hideous, but it all has one thing in common:  it at least tries to direct people toward God.  (And of course secular art, just like someone who isn't even religious, is also capable of leading people to God, often unintentionally.)  You'll notice that this is a very broad goal.  There are as least as many paths to God as there are human beings, and what works for one person might seem like pure crap to another.  But all religious art that strives for that title has the goal of leading people toward God.

So let's look at this "Adoration of the Magi."  Is it a problem that these "Magi" are not kings or wise men, that they're not even all men, that they don't have historically accurate clothes or hair, or that they don't show any signs of bearing gifts or of having traveled afar?  Not necessarily.  These departures from more traditional art may irritate or perplex you, but they aren't enough, in themselves, to disqualify this painting as religious art.

The reason I call it a secular painting is because it kind of  . . . doesn't have God in it.  The Magi's faces take up most of the canvas; but that's not what I mean.  I mean is that this painting is about the "Magi" themselves, and not about God.  A depiction of the Adoration of the Magi might have all sorts of elements in it, but  it absolutely must contain at least an indication that what they are adoring is God.  This is what is lacking in this picture, and that is what makes it not religious art.

You can tell by the shadows and highlights that the light source is above and to the right, out of the frame.  As I've discussed before, what light is doing in a painting is -- well, enlightening. In a traditional piece of art depicting the Magi, the light would be emanating from below, from the Christ Child, or from above, from the divinely-appointed guiding star.  In this painting, there is a significant break:  the light -- late morning sunlight, from the looks of it -- is from above, from behind the faces, and to the viewer's right.  And it's pretty clearly just the sun.  Why this innovation, if not to make a point?

You can see very plainly that these three are looking, with tenderness and some deep thought, at a baby -- or at least at something smaller than themselves, something which is causing them to think deeply.  This is no mean feat, depicting a face (never mind three) which is indisputably seeing something, thinking something.  The viewer fully believes that there is a child there, several feet down and to the left, beyond the frame of the picture.

But what is the expression on their faces, as they look at him?  They are withholding judgment.  Their oddly prominent lips are closed and at rest, without anything to say.  This is not a meaningless, mute painting, though.  It portrays very poignantly the religious experience that so many modern people have:  they have come to see what the fuss is about.  And there it is.  They look at God, and they don't know what to think.

These are modern magi:  exceedingly clean, healthy, and decent, confident but courteous.  But do they adore?  I don't see it.  I don't think they see God, at all.

There is nothing wrong with this painting.  It's not immoral and it's not heretical; and as I said, I like it.  It's interesting and well-executed.  But I wouldn't call it a piece of religious art.  I might call it "art about a religious subject" -- but that's not the same thing.  I just wish that today's religious art had more art in it, and today's secular art had more God in it.  I wish religious people loved beauty more, and good artists loved truth more.

What do you think?    Are you familiar with Schierenberg's art?  Do you see something I'm missing?  Should someone revoke my L.S.S. degree?

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About Simcha Fisher

Simcha Fisher
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Simcha Fisher, author of The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning writes for several publications and blogs at I Have to Sit Down. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and nine children. Without supernatural aid, she would hardly be a human being.