Religion And Art

It would be a mistake to suppose, however, that art, because different from religion, is antagonistic to it. The truth is just the contrary. It can be said, almost without qualification, that in all times of extreme traditionalism and unenlightenment art has proved the only agency that, without offending ignorance and superstition, has been able to counterbalance their influence. It has done this by using the forms of nature, and contenting itself with the truth as represented in them. Guised in familar aspects, appealing to the mind by way of suggestion which leaves the imagination free to surmise or to deduce whatever inference may appeal to it, the thoughts expressed in art do not, as a rule, repel even the most prejudiced, or excite their opposition. A man in Italy, in the thirteenth century, would have been sent to the stake if he had made a plain statement to the effect that a pope could be kept in hell, or a pagan admitted to paradise. Yet when Dante pictured both conditions in his great poem, how few questioned his orthodoxy! So with the themes of painting and of sculpture. What a rebuke to the bigotry and the cruelty of the Middle Ages were the countless products of the arts of those periods, pleading constantly to the eye against the savage customs of the times for the sweet but little-practised virtues of justice and charity ! Within our own century, too, not-withstanding the traditions of society, the State and the Church, which have often exerted all their powers to up-hold and perpetuate slavery, aristocracy, and sectarianism, recall how the modern novel chiefly, but assisted largely by the modern picture, has not only changed the whole trend of the world’s thought with reference to these systems, but has contributed, more, perhaps, than any other single cause, to the practical reorganization of them, in accordance with the dictates of enlightened intelligence. Notice, too, that this influence of art extends to the whole region covered by religion, whether pertaining to this world or to the next. In ages like our own, when men rely chiefly upon the guidance of the conscious mind, it is extremely difficult for them to be brought to realize that there is any trustworthy guidance attributable to the action of the subconscious mind. Art does not discuss this guidance, but presupposes it. Through the results of the – subconscious mind coalescing with those of the conscious mind it everywhere surrounds the material with the halo of the spiritual, causing those who will not even acknowledge the existence of the latter, to enter upon a practical experience of it in ideas, and to accept, when appearing in the guise of imagination, what they would reject if presented in its own lineaments. So the artist, though not a seer, always has within him the possibility of being the seer’s assistant.—Essentials of Aesthetics, In.

Probably no art-product has ever continued to influence ages succeeding its own, except in the degree in which it has shown itself to be the work of a man deeply interested, as a matter of sentiment at least, in religious, moral, social, or intellectual problems, and in their effects upon humanity. The oldest music that we have is all of it religious. So, when it is not merely ethical, is the oldest poetry. This is true not only of that which is in the Bible, and the Vedas of India, but in the Iliad, the Aeneid, and in all the greatest tragedies of the Greeks. So is much of the best of modern poetry also,—that of Dante, Racine, Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth, Schiller, and Shakespeare. Very nearly as large a proportion of quotations having to do with the right conduct of life can be taken from this last poet as from the Bible itself. Nor are they brought into his plays incidentally, though they are brought in artistically, i. e., in such ways as to aid in the representation of the characters depicted. Yet even to aid in this, they are often so unnecessary as to prove that their author is intentionally availing himself of an opportunity to introduce thought of a distinctly religious or moral tendency.—The Representative Significance of Form, XV.

When an artist depicts nature just as it is, if there be any such thing as natural religion, he produces upon the mind something of the effect of natural religion. If he depict humanity, he produces—if there be any such thing—something of the sympathetic effect of social religion. And in both cases he adds to the effect the influence which each has had upon his own character, and produces, if he have any, something of the effect of personal religion. Art combines the influences of God in nature, God in humanity, and God in the individual. It makes an appeal that is natural, sympathetic, and personal; but it does all this in a way that seems divine, because the factors of representation are reproductions of the divine handiwork. Essay on Art and Education.

In the old, and by no means beautiful chapel at Prince-ton, the faculty were never able to repress entirely certain irreverent forms of disturbance,—like keeping step with a Freshman when he walked to his seat. When the time came to move into the new Marquand Chapel, some one suggested, in a meeting of the faculty, that the students be particularly requested and warned not to continue these practices. After discussion, however, it was decided to postpone action until something had been done to necessitate it. Nothing ever did necessitate it. Every tendency to disorder was, apparently, completely suppressed by a mere change to a more aesthetic environment. Essay on Art and Morals: Note.

Under the pediment of the temple, the arches of the cathedral, the dome of the mosque, always, too, in the degree in which these are great works of art, the predominating impression is that of the universal fatherhood of God, which all alike represent. Essay on Art and Education.

The student of art cannot keep from learning through personal experience how months and years of exercise in voice and gesture, in playing music, in drawing, in painting, in carving, give one a mastery over the physical possibilities of the body not only, but of the mind. He is forced to realize as others cannot that there comes to be a time when every slightest movement through which music, for instance, passes with the rapidity of electricity from a printed score through the mind and fingers of a performer, is overseen and directed by mental action which, while intelligent, works unconsciously, all the conscious powers of the mind being absorbed in that which is producing the general expressional effect. The student of art has thus before him constant experimental evidence of the way in which the higher mental nature can gain ascendency over both the lower physical and the lower psychical nature. He knows practically as well as theoretically in what sense it can be true spiritually that the man who is to enter into the kingdom of heaven, who is to become with all his powers subject to the spirit that is sovereign there, and who is, without conscious effort, to embody in conduct its slightest promptings, is the man who consciously starts out with scrupulous and often painful efforts to do the will of the Father who is in heaven.—Idem.


But a man would mistake if for these reasons he were to suppose that art can be an entire substitute for religion. It can no more be this in that which has to do with inspiration than it can be a substitute for science in that which has to do with investigation. In an age in which there is little scientific accuracy, there is little artistic accuracy; and in an age in which there is little religious inspiration there is little artistic. The subconscious mind works in accordance with suggestion. The stimulus of religious suggestion is needed by art in order to attain the loftiest heights of imaginative effort. Of course this suggestion can be experienced in the degree only in which there is a certain practical belief in the relation of subconscious to conscious mental action, even if there be not a clear theoretical

understanding of it.—The Representative Significance of Form, VII.


It would be difficult, in fact, to discover a single element necessary to success in religious or scientific endeavor which, if held in due subordination, is really not available in the realm of art. Religion is an aid to it because, to interpret the truth of nature in all its depth and breadth of pureness and of charity, one must have a spirit capable of being often drawn into sympathy with that which is purest and best in nature. . . . And science, too, is an aid to art; and in the same category with science we must place all those phases of life which are appropriate subjects of investigation, everything that can enlighten man with reference to the laws of nature or of mind, or to the histories of either. Idem, XIII.


Religion unfolds like a plant from within. Its germs are of a kind hidden in nature, in the animal and in man, and when it reaches the thoughts, words, and deeds over which the mind exercises conscious control, it influences these in a manner peculiar to a tendency of instinct, a prompting of conscience, a motive to action. Of course a tendency, a prompting, a motive, cannot be expressed outwardly except as a man uses something like bodily speech or action that can be heard or seen. Like art, religion, therefore, is obliged in all forms of expression to exert more or less of a material influence upon the material body and its material surroundings. But in religion the essential matter is that these material forms of expression should always be subordinate to the promptings of the higher spiritual nature. . . . In art the conditions are different. It involves no necessary subordination of the outward to the inward. There is always a cooperation between the two, in which sometimes the one seems the more prominent and sometimes the other, but in no case does the mind fail to recognize the demands of its material surroundings, or to aim at conformity to these. It is the essential condition of art that it should manifest this conformity: that it should produce a dramatic imitation, a melody, a metaphor, a picture, a statue, a building, whatever it may be, which in some way emphasizes the influence of these surroundings. Even as applied to ordinary action, a man who can be specially commended for the art which he manifests in conversation or in conduct is not the one who would most naturally be selected as an exemplification of that faith which underlies the disregard of material conditions involved often in speaking the truth, and always in marching to martyrdom.—Idem, Ix.

Religious effects are seldom produced by what are recognized clearly to be copies of mere forms. A Christian man through his conduct, and a church through its services, may represent the Christian life, but the moment that the representative element in either is emphasized, the moment that it is brought to our attention that the man’s actions, attitudes, or facial and vocal expressions are assumed for the purpose of representing, he suggests to us a Pharisee, if not a hypocrite. With art it is the opposite. Its object is to represent; and the actor upon the stage, or any imitator of real life as delineated in the drama or the novel, or depicted in the picture or the statue, awakens our approval in the exact degree of the unmistakably representative character of his performance.—Essentials of ;Esthetics, III.


There is much religious truth in “Paradise Lost,” for instance, but there might have been just as much of this in a poorly written prose work. What makes Milton’s religious truth artistic, is its poetic embodiment; and the peotry is just as artistic, so far as concerns this alone in places in which there is no suggestion of religion.—The Representative Significance of Form, VII.