Friday, November 5, 2010

Religion in Art

Sometimes religion and morality in art can be inspiring. It’s like another testimony, and one that’s accessible to even the illiterate. However, other times the images can be stomach-churning and ruin morale. The Norton Simon Museum, like other art museums, has collections filled with artwork depicting biblical, mythological, and historical scenes, conveying various the spiritual and moral lessons. Below I discuss two that left me with quite a different impression that the ones I suspect the artists wanted viewers to have.

Resurrection (c. 1455) by Dieric Bouts

Every time I look at this painting or its photograph, I see something new: The use of color to relate Jesus to the heavenly being and to the mortals. The placement of Christ’s head with a halo resembling sunlight peaking over the horizon. One thing I’d like to know more about is whether or not the guards are supposed to be representing different cultures. Their uniforms are very different although united by color, and their beard and hairstyles also seem to indicate different fashions. It’s a very creatively constructed piece.

However, what does it convey from a religious perspective? I’ve heard comments about this painting being “powerful” and about Jesus’ commanding presence, but I don’t see any of that. The only thing that comes to mind is Craig Hazen’s lecture for the Defending the Faith series sponsored by BIOLA University’s Christian Apologetics Program. While discussing alternative theories for Jesus sightings after His death, he describes a hypothetical situation in which Jesus straggles to meet His disciples after waking from a swoon. As Hazen points out, Jesus would’ve been in such terrible shape from the torture and crucifixion that no one would’ve interpreted Him still being alive as a glorious resurrection.

Well, unfortunately, Bouts’ painting to me looks really depressing. Although Hollywood is often accused of “sexing up” history, I still think that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has the most accurate resurrection scene: Jesus looks healthy and determined to tackle His next task. Bouts’ Christ looks like He ought to lie back down again until His normal color returns.

The Triumph of Virtue and Nobility Over Ignorance (c. 1740-1750) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

This ceiling canvas made me laugh. The haughty look on the face of Virtue brought to mind how easy it is for many Christians to become proud of their virginity, celibacy, refusal to date, or whatever and to never let the sinners of the world forget it. (I know because I was a repeat offender.) Rather than the sweet piety of the Virgin Marys or the carefree innocence of the Dianas found in hundreds of other artworks, this is a depiction of Virtue at her worst. Although Ignorance herself is cast down from heaven, she has made a lasting impression on another who continues to reside there.