The origins of art are as perplexing as the inception of language itself. Once upon a time, writes James Elkins in On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, in every place, and in every time, art was religious; for about eight thousand years ago, Asia, Africa, and Europe were full of sculpted deities and totemic representations: “According to various accounts… people left offerings, built altars, and chipped at rocks and bones to make images of gods” (5). It may be inferred that art began to be associated with certain practices and beliefs that came to be called religion later, though the concept of what constitutes art was also a later development.
Early art was known for its religious or rather ritualistic worth notes Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”. “The earliest artworks,” he writes, “originated in the service of rituals- first magical, then religious,” adding
Artistic production begins with figures in the service of magic. What is important for these figures is that they are present, not that they are seen. ... Cult value as such even tends to keep the artwork out of sight: certain statues of gods are accessible only to the priest in the cella; certain sculptures on medieval cathedrals are not visible to the viewer at ground level. (24-25)
During the course of the thesis, it shall become apparent that the religion in question is Christianity, Catholicism, to be more precise. The inception of Christianity did not change art’s religious purpose: Virgin and Child with Balaam the Prophet, a late second-century fresco from the Catacomb of Priscilla, is the oldest known representation of Christ. The Catacomb of Priscilla is where the earliest known Christian art has been found. I discuss this to emphasize a seemingly natural relation between the new Christian purpose of art and late Roman art.
After emperor Constantine established the Christian church as a power in the state and it had become the greatest power in the realm, the church’s relationship to art had to be reconsidered. The new places of worship could not be modeled on the ancient temples, for their function was entirely different. The interior of the temple, usually, was only a small shrine for the statue of the god. All processions and sacrifices took place outside this shrine. The church, in contrast, had to find room for the whole congregation that assembled for service. The churches, therefore, were modeled on large and spacious assembly halls, not on pagan temples. The question of how to decorate them raised the issue of iconography and its use in religion.
The early Christians agreed that there must be no statues in the House of the Lord, for they would be like those graven images and heathen idols that were condemned in the Bible. The Second Commandment forbids the making of any images (of God). Although there were several objections to large lifelike statues, Pope Gregory the Great’s ideas about paintings differed. He found them useful because they could help to remind the congregation of the teachings they had received and keep the memory of the sacred episodes alive. He held that many members of the church could neither read nor write and for the purpose of teaching them, images could prove to be useful.
‘If God in His mercy could decide to reveal Himself to mortal eyes in the human nature of Christ,’ it was argued, ‘why should He not also be willing to manifest Himself in visible images? We do not worship these images themselves as the pagans did. We worship God and the Saints through or a cross their images’(Gombrich 97). But, paintings in a church aren’t considered to be mere illustrations of the sacred episodes; they are revered reflections of the supernatural world.
Christianity worked in conjunction with iconography and did so much till around the seventeenth century, with iconic figures being represented through the new techniques that were becoming dominant. Leonardo da Vinci’s Saviour of the World presents Christ in a Renaissance drapery, holding a transparent crystal globe pointing to his role as the Saviour of the world, and “representing the ‘crystalline sphere’ of the heavens, as it was perceived during the Renaissance” (Kemp 37). Raphael’s The Sistine Madonna depicts the Virgin Mary striding towards the earthly realm with the Christ Child in her arms. On Her, either side is Pope Sixtus II and St Barbara, who were martyred in the third century. Biblical myths and legends of martyrdom, such as this, were often celebrated in conjunction with the Christian iconography in the Renaissance.
Renaissance was also when a programmatic split was first witnessed between religion and art. The meaning of art had begun to change: the notion of a craftsman whose artworks provoked their viewers to think of the artist’s craftsmanship in addition to their subject had developed. Michelangelo’s David, for instance, surpassed “all ancient and modern statues, whether Greek or Latin, that has ever existed,” bringing the idealization of the human figure to its highest peak (Vasari 21). Representing the Biblical hero David, the statue had come to make a great symbol of the independence and heroic individual spirit of the Florentine republic.
The distinction between religion and art widened in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During the Baroque, Diego Velazquez’s religious artworks, for instance, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary concentrated on naturalism, making new ways of representing their primary focus. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary shows the interior of, perhaps, a kitchen. It is very much like a still life painting displaying the food on the table in an as real manner as possible. The biblical scene is presented only in the background, which we see through a mirror, or what might be a painting. It seems it is not the biblical rendition of narratives but an exploration of newer techniques that are more important.
A little later, the English Romantic poet, William Blake was producing drawings using Biblical narratives. He came of age in a period of heightened revolution. After having witnessed the American and French revolutions, like most British radicals, Blake backed the revolutionary cause. He saw the war, at least in its later phase, as a Satanic conspiracy. He held that one day the world would plunge into the ‘Furnaces of Affliction’- standing for both the workplaces of the British working class as well as metaphors for human suffering used to describe Hell. The cities would rise to disperse the clouds of tyranny and oppression.
Blake associates religious ideas with social terms to express the sense of self-sacrificing mutuality and universal love that are needed to create and sustain a free society. After the Romantic movement, the artists experimented with form and color. Much of modern art is about departing from traditional styles and values like mythology, narrative, and lyric in a move towards abstraction and the exploration of the inner self. All this while Biblical scenes, for instance, crucifixions and the Virgin and Child would surely have continued to be produced as religious commissions.
It is here that the notion of the creative artist began to develop, validating art as an institution, which continued to diverge itself from the ‘old’ structures like organized religion, paving way for secular, blasphemous, and irreligious artworks. Several Modernist artists painted the figure of Christ but there seems to be less room left for religious sensibilities in such artworks. They appear to be preoccupied with experiments with light, and color, among other elements. Manet’s Dead Christ with Angels has come to be known for the realism of Christ's pallid body. Elsewhere, in Christ of St John of the Cross Dali presents the crucified Christ as hanging with His head held down in a deep azure sky.
Postmodern art, along similar lines, has made the break more decisive, for it is largely not intended as religious. Perhaps, it may be inferred that there may have been a time when the visual arts contributed to religious or ritualistic services but seem to be largely profane in the present day. Jesus 2000, an international competition to find the image of Jesus for the millennium, judged by Sister Wendy Beckett in 1999 may have come up as a religious work of art but artworks are mentioned with religion today largely in cases of scandals, blasphemy, or upsetting religious sentiments.
When religion does come up in the contemporary visual arts, it does so because of certain works like Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, painted using elephant dung. The association of the sacred (Virgin Mary) and the profane or vulgar (excrement) becomes a matter of contestation. This is an art that cannot be placed or discussed in a church. Artworks of Andres Serrano and Francis Bacon may be considered to embody similar ethos.
Serrano (b. 1950) is an American artist notoriously known for the controversial content of his photographs: creating pictures from repulsive materials, for instance, urine and excrement, inspiring angry reactions and vandalism of his artworks like Piss Christ, a red-tinged photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass container of what was claimed to be artist’s own urine and Pieta, a woman dressed in black holding a sea-animal.
Francis Bacon (1909-92) was an Irish-British painter known for his grotesque depictions of the popes and crucifixions, which won him instant and notorious fame. His studies of popes appear as nightmarish icons, expressing brutality and terror. In his Crucifixion, the crucified Christ is replaced by an animal carcass. His artworks, like those of Serrano, seem to be free of religious motifs. A sincere expression of religious belief of any sort appears to be largely absent from Serrano and Bacon’s artworks.
Serrano and Bacon’s artworks come across as offending religious sensibilities with intent. Both appear to reject received religious ideas to test and essentially subvert the narratives and even art itself. This rejection of Christian ideals and common capacity to provoke outrage and disgust is what holds their artworks together, giving them a kind of unity. This is a kind of art that may be seen as a crime. These are crimes of art that are also crimes against art- art preying upon art.
The artists force the boundaries of what art is. They may be seen as injurious artworks, for they may provoke others to do something similar causing greater harm. It is because of this that I name my dissertation “Offences of Art”. This interaction between irreligion and their artworks posits several questions. I am motivated to ask whether art has lost a pivotal subject while divorcing itself from religion; besides, does contemporary visual art essentially tend to be irreligious?
Artworks, for instance, Hans Memling’s Scenes from the Passion of Christ employ mythologies that are deeply rooted in virtues such as love, hatred, and sacrifice, among others. I shall discuss whether art lost these grand virtues as it parted ways with religion.
In the second chapter, Andres Serrano: Art that Offends, I discuss how Serrano’s photographs have been notoriously famous for offending religious sensibilities with intent, followed by a discussion of him using repulsive materials, for instance, meat and excrement and re-presenting venerated titles as shock art that evoke angry reactions. Discussing how photography itself has been understood as a blasphemous art, I end the chapter deliberating on how Serrano’s photographs can be understood as challenging both societal and artistic boundaries.
I begin the third chapter, Francis Bacon: Deforming the ‘Sacred’ discussing how Bacon’s artworks are studies of his predecessors, especially Diego Velázquez, following whose artwork he has produced his study of screaming popes. Studying Bacon’s artworks in light of the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, whom Bacon often read, I explore how they not only divorce themselves from religious sensibilities but have also been produced along the ideas that were relevant to their period. I end the chapter discussing whether Bacon’s artworks produce new meaning and/or dismantle the hitherto prevalent ones.
In the conclusion, I present, firstly, a discussion of the aims and key methodology of my study, followed by a summary of its findings and a conclusion of the previously discussed arguments. I explore whether religious belief conditions the creation and appreciation of artworks, especially the ones that have been discussed. I end the chapter on a self-reflexive note, examining the thesis in light of the expectations stated in the introduction, assessing the limitations of the study, and recommending possibilities for further research.