Religions Influence And Application Of Art

Considering the great power and influence over the mind which the arts possess, especially the art of painting, and how extensively the sister art of poetry, even in the inspired writings, has been availed of in the service of religion, I can-not but think that we of this country greatly err in not employing pictorial composition for this the highest purpose for which it could be used, and one moreover in which it has been eminently successful. The greatest masterpieces in this art, the cartoons of Raphael, and the principal works of Michael Angelo, were chosen from subjects of this character. And yet, because the art of painting when thus employed has, like every other useful and exalted pursuit, been found capable of abuse, and been in some instances abused, we seem now persuaded that we ought altogether to deny ourselves the noblest application of it, and thus we in reality suffer far more from the loss of the use than from the most extensive abuse.

To this discouragement of the employment of art in the service of religion in this country, is no doubt in a great measure owing the trifling nature of compositions in general of the English school of painting. The noblest themes for the pencil are forbidden, and but little or no patronage is afforded to works in this the highest department of the art.

In the case of architecture, the influence of art to raise the mind is indeed directly acknowledged ; and our grand cathedrals consecrated to the service of religion, excite within us emotions the sublimest and most exalted, befitting the purposes for which they were intended.

The principal objections which have been raised against the arts generally, but more especially those of painting and sculpture, may be comprised in the three following, which, it is important to observe, are all based upon the supposition of those arts being abused.

1. That the arts are calculated unduly to inflame the grosser passions, by representing scenes of an exciting character.

2. That they have a tendency to enervate the minds of their votaries.

3. That they have aided and encouraged superstition.

1. That art has been made use of to inflame the passions, and to stimulate sensual desires, in the way here supposed, cannot be doubted. But this is clearly a gross abuse of it, is quite independent of its proper, and indeed its ordinary employment, and is wholly foreign to its highest efforts. As regards not only painting, but all the other arts, its effect will necessarily correspond with the nature of the subject re-presented.

2. As regards the enervation of the mind by art, it cannot be denied that this result maybe produced. But it can only arise from a too exclusive and unremitting study of it, which is of itself an abuse. Many kinds of food which are very wholesome and beneficial if taken in moderation, and in conjunction with others, such as wine and certain fruits and vegetables, become deleterious if used alone, or indulged in to excess.

3. The application of art to superstitious purposes is entirely an abuse of it, and is one of the greatest to which it is capable of being perverted. But this abuse is by no means necessary to the exercise of art, and is quite unconnected with its highest purposes. Art is as liable, but not more liable, to perversion and abuse than is every other great and important and intellectual pursuit. And the more important and exalted is the character of the pursuit, the greater is this danger, and the greater also is the evil resulting from it.

It is remarkable, indeed, to how small an extent the great masters in painting have contributed to the promulgation of superstition, considering more especially that they were nearly all of them Roman Catholics, men of deep religious feeling, of highly imaginative and romantic genius, which might incline them to such efforts,—and that they flourished in the very times when credulities of this kind most abounded; yet nearly all their compositions are confined either to Scriptural narrative, important events in the Church, or leading transactions in profane history. Painting has hardly done her part in support of superstition, compared with what poetry has effected; and in both arts it is those only of secondary merit who have enlisted in the ranks of fanaticism.

All the above objections to art, and indeed every other which – I have heard urged against it, proceed on the ground of a real or supposed abuse of it; and they may be all rendered equally applicable to every other occupation of life. Let those whose souls are so weak or so ill-disciplined, whose constitutions or habits are so irregular, that they cannot use without abusing the noblest and best of the Creator’s gifts,—as appears to be the unhappy case of the above objectors,—abstain rigorously altogether from partaking of them. With this, surely they ought to rest satisfied. Hard, indeed, is it if they demand in addition that the better constituted, whom we may charitably hope form also by far the larger portion of humanity, should be required wholly to discontinue these important efforts on account of the abuse of them by others. Logic and law are quite as liable to perversion, and are quite as often perverted as are painting and poetry.

But it is contended that art has been inimical to religion, inasmuch as it has fostered idolatry, and has moreover led men to make visual representations of things which were only spiritual in their nature, and has thus debased and rendered gross what was pure and intellectual. Objects of idolatrous worship are also said to have been supplied by means of art.

All this, however, is, again, not the use but the abuse of art. And it was not owing to art that this evil was perpetrated, although art was undoubtedly availed of as the instrument of it at certain periods. It was, moreover, principally, if not solely, in the rudest efforts of early art that the most objectionable religious representations were attempted, which were in many cases quite beyond the strict province of art. Indeed, art was but one out of many methods resorted to for the purpose of propagating superstition and idolatry, in an age when these reigned supreme, and rendered not only art, but science and learning also subservient to their ends. In an en-lightened and highly civilized age and country like our own, there is but little fear, it is to be hoped, of our prostrating our-selves before and worshipping the paintings and statues that adorn our galleries. Nevertheless, even at the present period, we have an object of adoration made of silver and gold, which we are apt to idolize in the form of wealth, and before which many bow down with as intense devotion as the most degraded worshippers of Dagoh or of Moloch. Against so sordid a vice, which is the parent of the most humiliating species of idolatry, the liberal and enlightened pursuit of art, which refines and invigorates and raises the mind, affords the surest and most effectual preservative which experience has discovered.

If, on the other hand, we bear in mind the vast services which art has rendered to religion in a variety of ways,—and which has been by its strict and legitimate use as contradistinguished from its abuse, in raising fit temples for the adoration of the Creator, in elevating our ideas by its adequate representation of sacred subjects, and by stimulating devotion by melody, the general and extensive use of art in the furtherance of religion must be obvious. How largely, too, may art be made to contribute to the power and the service of religion, alike by inspiring the strains of devotional poetry, and by ex-citing eloquence in pulpit oratory, the themes for which are of the noblest nature, identical with those which produced the sublimest achievements by the greatest painters, and which Milton chose as the subject for his muse ! Equally with painting and architecture, are poetry and eloquence adapted to serve the cause of religion, and to aid and give effect to its exercises.

Indeed, it is not too much to assert that art has done quite as much for religion, and for commerce also, as religion and commerce have done for art. To the influence of the former, it has added vigour and fervour and attractiveness ; and to the resources of the latter it has contributed extensively in various ways.

Some of the most valiant assailants of art have, nevertheless, made bold to assure us that, not only idolatry, but sculpture itself was entirely forbidden by the Second Commandment. Such an interpretation of the Commandment can, however, only arise from a very narrow view of it, and by taking the first clause quite independent of the second, “thou shall not fall down to them nor worship them,” but which is evidently intended to form an inseparable part of, and to have reference to it, Indeed, if it is persisted that the first clause is to be construed strictly, and independent of its context, the result will be that graven images only can be proved to be prohibited, and it must be conceded that no command against those which are molten or moulded is promulgated ; and, on the other hand, the prohibition against making the likeness of anything, must be extended to all pictures of every description, including landscapes. Both these ways of interpreting this, or any other law, human or divine, are, however, alike unreasonable, and alike contrary to sense. From other parts of Scripture we may learn that the use of sculpture was not only not forbidden, but that in many cases it was expressly enjoined, as in the carvings about the temple, The fact of the making of the brazen serpent in the wilderness at the command of God himself, to which the Israelites were moreover directed to look up, is a proof at once that all construction and even veneration of images are not necessarily unlawful and idolatrous. Fanaticism, which narrows the mind, and would exclude it from the ennobling influence of works of taste, exerts itself also to distort the judgment, and perverts it in the interpretation of God’s own commands. Thus most effectually does it do the work of Satan, by transforming the most beneficent of opportunities into occasions of evil; and the good that it is unable to abuse, it persuades us to disuse.

It cannot, indeed, be asserted with truth or justice that either sculpture or painting were the originating causes of idolatry, although they might eventually have in some cases fostered it ; inasmuch as the original objects of idolatry were actually existing beings, not artificial representations of them, such as pictures or statues, which were hardly invented when idolatry flourished in its greatest vigour. Men worshipped the sun, moon, and stars as the first objects of their adoration, after they had forsaken the only God;; although probably even then, they regarded the planets, not as substitutes for, but as types of Him. After that, they adored certain animals. Particular forms were then constructed as objects of worship, which were not however imitations of Divinities, or of any beings in nature, but were intended to be symbolical representations or relics. Figures of animals, in the absence probably of the animals them selves, were subsequently adored, and which painting and sculpture enabled men to make. It would seem, moreover, that the attempt to carve a figure of the Deity was one of the last acts in the progress of rendering art the instrument of idolatry.

Among those of the highest and most cultivated minds, art has ever been regarded as the handmaid of religion, which it has befriended alike by the adornment of her temples, and the assistance it has afforded in the sublime and solemn services of the sanctuary. Nor has religion herself been backward in owning the obligation, or in avowing the connection between the two ; and in the Divine record itself we find both the noblest examples and the most constant reference to the uses and excellences of art. It is, moreover, there associated with the most exalted and most ecstatic of celestial enjoyments.

The relationship between religion and art is in nothing evinced more fully than in the liability of both to perversion and abuse. That the legitimate use of art should be condemned by the lifeless in religion, and the morose and sordid in mind, ught to be no matter of wonder, as the former are incapable of being animated by its divine rays, and the latter care only to avoid costliness in their adoration. Thus, while art is associated alike with the highest aspirations of religion and the most exalted faculties of the soul, Puritanism is at variance with all this, both in spirit and in feeling ; the noblest powers of the mind it seeks to paralyse ; the sweets of religion it would turn bitter. And in its denunciation of art, it has even dared to pronounce that unholy of which the oracles of Revelation have not scrupled to avail; and has actually been presumptuous enough to declare that unfit for the service of religion which the usages of Heaven directly sanction.

Surely, indeed, the divine masterpieces of Raphael, especially his cartoons, appeal to our religious feelings with as much force, and as much depth, as the most eloquent precepts which proceed from the pulpit. If the effect of sacred compositions in painting adequately treated, such as we have in some of the works of the old masters, is to raise and purify, and excite devotional feeling in the mind; why should we so scrupulously forbid their introduction into our churches, where they would be of really inestimable value in this respect, and contribute essentially to the sacred character of the edifice ? Most useful and powerful in every way might the arts be rendered as instructors of the people. In this manner the dead walls of our national institutions would become the most eloquent of public teachers ; and the very stones, sculptured in apt forms, would literally be made to cry out.

The ludicrous inconsistency into which certain zealous Protestants have fallen in their abhorrence of and determination to exclude Papal ornaments from our churches, needs not to be pointed out. By their judicious arrangement, all Scriptural paintings, even those calculated to excite the most devotional feelings, are utterly forbidden to enter, while sculptured monuments of the most heathenish and irreverent character, containing suitable inscriptions, and which were in many cases erected to memorialize persons of immoral and irreligious lives, are admitted without scruple and without restraint. In our abhorrence of Popery, we have sought refuge in Paganism. The church has been converted into a Pantheon. Tombs are placed there to record the bad acts of bad men, to the exclusion of all representations of the actions of Him to whom the Temple is devoted. Painting suspected to be Popish is rigidly excluded, only to afford room for sculpture undeniably Pagan.

As regards the objection that paintings in churches would have the effect of drawing off the attention of the congregation; this must apply quite as much not only to painted windows, but to monuments as well, which should, therefore, be excluded from its walls. Besides which, there is nothing of an elevating or inspiring nature in the generality of monumental inscriptions ; while the direct object of sacred paintings is not to distract the attention from, but to rivet it to religious subjects, and to aid the effect of religious services.

Bishop Newton, when Dean of St. Paul’s, was favourable to its being adorned with paintings of sacred subjects ; and Bishop Hurd, and other dignitaries of the Church, who were consulted on the matter by King George III., expressed themselves unanimously of opinion that the introduction of paintings into the chapel which his Majesty proposed to erect at Windsor Castle, would in no respect whatever violate the laws or usages of the Church of England. Even Luther was not unfavourable to representations in art, provided they were not regarded as objects of worship. Erasmus says, ” I could, indeed, wish that the walls of all public places were decorated with representations of the life of Christ, expressed in a becoming manner.”

A single exception, indeed, there is in this country, and even in our renowned Metropolis, to the exclusion of pictures from churches, which is to be found in the chapel of one of our Royal Palaces, that at Whitehall; the ceiling of which is richly decorated with paintings by Rubens, and to the presence of which ‘no objection whatever has been raised by any of those who are so zealous against the intrusion of pictures into sacred edifices. Nevertheless, the designs here alluded to are of a character peculiarly unsuitable to a place of worship, representing a bacchanalian scene, the figures being half naked, and many of them grossly indecent ! The objection appears therefore, in reality, to be, not to the introduction of all paintings into churches, but only to those which are of a sacred kind, and such as are calculated to excite suitable emotions within the consecrated building. To pictures and monuments of an irreverent, and even immoral or heathenish character, no opposition whatever has been offered.

Sculpture was very early, if not originally used in the service of religion, and the most ancient history of its progress is to be found in the sacred Scriptures. We cannot suppose that when the carvings to the Temple were enjoined by the ex-press command of the Almighty himself, there was less fear than there is in our days of the people falling into idolatry. On the contrary, idolatry was the besetting sin of the Jews, and indeed, of all their contemporary surrounding nations at that period; while in these days its general prevalence is most improbable. Yet, sculpture was particularly ordered by the Almighty to be used in the adornment of the edifice especially dedicated to His service, and Bezaleel. and Aholiab are expressly mentioned as sculptors ” in whom the Lord put wisdom and understanding to know how to work all manner of work for the service of the sanctuary.”* As sculpture was thus early consecrated to the service of religion by God himself, so the highest and most perfect efforts in the other arts have been those in which religion has engaged them. The grandest subjects both in poetry and in painting, and also in sculpture and in music, have been supplied by the Bible, and the sublimest edifices are those which have been raised for the service of religion. In eloquence, too, the loftiest themes have been drawn from the Divine oracles, which contain the noblest examples both of this art and of poetry. ” The man after God’s own heart ” was a musician and a poet ; and the best gifts that God chose to confer on David’s son were intellectual capacities of the highest order.

Puritanism, on the other hand, while it has done nothing for art or for taste,—has produced no great painters, raised no grand cathedrals, given birth to no sublime strains,—has served only to blight the genius whose productions it has not the soul to estimate. In this country it imposed the greatest check on the progress of art and genius that it has ever received, and which occurred in the seventeenth century, when artistical talent seemed most fully to be developing itself both in England and in other countries. This, indeed, was the age of Shakespeare and of Milton ; of Raphael and of Michael Angelo. But the triumph of fanaticism followed hard after it, the celestial spark was extinguished, and could never be rekindled.

It is surely, therefore, not too much to assert that in the service of religion the arts have been not only indirectly, but in many respects directly beneficial, and that in the most important points. To say nothing of the use of eloquence in leading us to pursue the right course, of poetry as availed of by Divine inspiration, of architecture and music as employed in the celebration of the services of religion by command of God himself, art as a whole must be acknowledged to be of essential value in raising and purifying the mind, and in increasing the devotional feelings of the soul. Even in Heaven itself, we are informed on the authority of Revelation, that its use in this respect is not only acknowledged but fully availed of, whose choirs swell with the strains of music, and whose fabrics are adorned with more than architectural beauty and grandeur. Religion, indeed, appears not only the proper application, but the most suitable employment for art, especially art of the highest kind; and the more exalted the branch of art, the fitter it appears for the service of religion. Some of the most powerful and striking representations of events in sacred history, have been effected by pictorial art; and if the high and noble capacities of art in this respect have been abused, it has only suffered here in common with the religion in whose service it was engaged.

Religion and art, so important in their influence, and by God himself united together in the grand work of reforming and refining man, ought never by the presumption of man to have been put asunder. The connection between religion and art has ever contributed to render both more attractive, and to give strength to the influences of each. Thus should the highest faculties of the soul, and the noblest of its fruits, be consecrated together to the service of its all-glorious Creator, at once its choicest duty, and its most becoming theme.

Religion has, moreover, it must be acknowledged, done much for art, not only indirectly by affording the best patronage for it which it has received, but directly in a more important manner by supplying it with the noblest themes for its exercise that it has obtained. It has exerted, indeed, the same, or a corresponding influence on art, with that which art has exerted on man. It has hallowed, and refined, and ennobled it. All the grandest efforts of art are those which are put forth in the service of religion. Its chief bane, especially in modern times, has been the application of it to trivial and vulgar and paltry subjects. Religion, more than anything, has tended to raise it from this debased condition, and to restore it to its proper sphere; nothing paltry, or mean, or ignoble in art has been produced while it was employed in her service.

Not only, however, have painting and sculpture been thought inimical to religion, but fanatics have even been found who have objected to poetry as a vain and useless art; and if eloquence is to be tried as the other arts have been, and to be condemned for the abuse which may be made of it, its chances of escape must be small indeed. Music, too, has been severely censured as contributing to vanity and superstition ; and architecture is condemned by many on similar charges.

Dramatic acting, like the other arts already referred to, has been objected to on moral and religious grounds; and as in their case, the arguments resorted to against it have all been derived from its abuse instead of its use. The great moral and even religious purposes to which it is capable of being applied, have here been entirely overlooked. For a long period, in-deed, the drama was resorted to as a religious exhibition; and its value in holding up to execration and ridicule vice and hypocrisy, may still be experienced. All the arguments against it are adduced from circumstances which have no natural or necessary connection with the drama itself, but arise solely out of some abuse connected with the mode of its performance.

As well, however, might we object to the use of costume on account of its ministering to our vanity (as the Quakers indeed do to all but the very plainest), or on the ground that its origin may be traced to the sin of man while in Paradise. On this account, too, even gardening by fanatical zealots might be for equally good reasons contended to be sinful, man having been expelled from the first garden by his Maker, and forbidden to re-enter a spot which was the sad scene of his transgression and fall.