The Relations Of Photography And Religion

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In this project I am going to examine the influence of art paintings into photography, more specifically religious art (renaissance, christian art etc), whilst arguing if this modern medium of art has flipped the traditional sacramentality of these paintings on its head. This topic is particularly interesting to me because it discusses religion and christianity, which is a very wide and riveting subject anyway, but as a christian I find it almost natural to discuss something so familiar, despite the context I am going to discuss it in this essay. I will strive to back up my arguments with research that supports both sides, without insinuating any sort of bias. I will be expanding on questions such as ‘does art/photography take religion as seriously as it used to?’, ‘ Is it sacrilegious to express religion or Christ in the way it is today?’ The relevance my research will bring is how and why Christian art has changed and I will make it relate to today's contemporary notion of expressing religion in art or photography. My focus has mainly been on photographic images that evidence an active artistic exploration and/or exploitation of religion and faith on behalf of the maker, while touching on the reasons for these creations— which may range from religious illustration, to faith, to dogma. Then I will try and argue on how artistic approaches on Chrisitan art have changed or gone beyond older principles through time. Throughout this essay I will discuss and unveil one of the many complex facets that the relationship between art and photography holds. Whether it is a simply negative or positive one however is completely ambiguous, and that is why I have chosen to argue this particular topic.

Religion in Painting

Early Religious art dates all the way back to the 6th century in forms of architecture, sculpture and painting, however in this chapter and onwards, I will be mainly focusing on religious and christian iconography that was born in the renaissance times during the 13th and 14th century and how this distinct age of art has transformed through time into the hands of contemporary practitioners. At this time period in history is when artists began using more humanistic looking subjects and naturalistic settings to appeal to the masses and become more relevant to everyday life. Choosing this particular era of art to refer to seemed most appropriate as the majority of christian and religious art since then has been a reaction to these iconic and classic interpretations of the divine. Over the centuries and generations, artists (primarily painters) in many cultures, nations and ethnic groups have struggled to devise a collective visual memory of Christ’s likeness through the fabrication of some convincing and tangible relic of His image. Leonardo da Vinci for example is one of the many who has famously shared his perception on this particular dogma. One of the most famous pieces being “The Last Supper” where it shows Christ sitting at a long table with his disciples. This painting is solely a visual representation of the biblical story of when Jesus had the last supper with his disciples the night before he was betrayed, and this image has transcended through the ages as an exemplary pictorial of one of the most iconic biblical stories. This painting among many others illustrating christian faith, has become a powerful vehicle in communicating christian messages, especially in times of the renaissance when illiteracy was a wider issue of society. Da Vinci expressed religion in his art in a way that was exalted by society, people appreciated having visual imagery of biblical stories and it wasn’t a piece of art that would provoke any shock. During this time, most paintings were provided by the Church, and so art had to be respectful to whom it concerned.

However, the variation in such painted images is such that Jesus’ interrogation of his disciples “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15), could easily be directed to all those artists who, over the last two thousand years, and across cultures and generations, imagined, interpreted and depicted Him in a variety of modes and styles. Churches were huge patrons of the arts and purchased tremendous amounts of art to create awe and respect, however I would emphasise that christian/religious art provided by the church and created by the renaissance painters at the time were Catholic christian derived as opposed to Protestant christian, as they both besides being in the same spectrum, both hold very different values. Protestants discouraged the production of religious art because they wanted to place more emphasis on the text rather than individual interpretations (Protestant reformation). Although both sides of christianity had differing ideas on art, it is undeniable that the biblical pictorials shed a new light on the text and gave centuries a visual sense of comfort and peace. Coherently, art in the renaissance was a peak time for faith related representations, and it definitely most of the time, if not all the time painted Christ or holy beings in beautiful humanistic ways, that radiated purity. However religious art was not always an act of faith or expression. Many painters and artists had more superficial and selfish intent.

'To paint the things of Christ you must live with Christ,' said the 15th-century artist Fra Angelico. What is it like to live in a world where everyone is religious? It is often said it was impossible to even imagine atheism in the middle ages and the Renaissance. That is because art orbited around christianity at the time, so a lot of artists submitted to following the trend because money was the catalyst. Could you say it was a less obvious way of exploiting Christ for personal gain? My focus in this essay is to pick apart the art of yesterday and the art of today, is it sacrilegious to express religion or Christ in the way it is today? It might be, however some christian art didn't seem to have always been conducted with the purist purpose. So how can it be so different to today’s art? Painters such as Da Vinci and Michaelangelo were profound catholics who painted while living for what they painted for. They are a considerable example of showing that when there is genuine and authentic intentions behind your work, success can come with it. “Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.” One of Da Vinci’s quotes which states that the Spirit (assuming the Holy Spirit) is to be the guide of an artist's intentions, otherwise if it's through our own flesh-driven intentions, is it true (christian) art?

Religion in Photography

Christ and religion have been a recurrent theme throughout photography’s history, and irrespective of the photographer's background, it can sometimes come across as provocative and scandalous, despite the artist's unpredictable intention. This chapter presents an overview of such photographs in an attempt to examine the occurrence of different Biblical motifs in photography and how they’ve represented these sacred symbols today. A key practitioner that represents this particular chapter is Andres Serrano, a photographer famous for his graphic and controversial images using his own bodily fluids/feces to embody his work. His most popular work “Piss Christ” generated the most attention for its outrageous concept, leaving christian fundamentalists flabbergasted.

It shows a plastic figure being Christ on the cross, being submerged in the photographer's own urine. The reactions were so negative it led to the piece being vandalised many times due to its sacrilegious connotations. This could be a result of certain personal interpretations that for centuries has been kept under the traditional veil of christian doctrines. Serrano’s work undeniably caused shock with its profane and unfiltered expression, however he is only one of the many that have also explored the very thin line that photography holds within the boundaries of religion, boundaries that are only set by the imaginative limitations of the photographers. For quite a while, photography mostly borrowed or, more often than not, openly copied ideas, styles and strategies from the most respected and well-established medium of painting, which had a centuries-long tradition. Which raises the question of whether the effort of artists, more specifically photographers, imitating and then elevating or heightening their work and ideas to prove to themselves that photography is a medium of its own? Could it have been a way to remove itself from the shadow of the painting medium? However the attempt would always have been one sided, as the relationship between the two has always been that way, painting has forever been a model and an inspiration to photography, even more so when religion is involved.

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A lot view photography as a vehicle of self expression and creativity, however are there any boundaries when it comes to the likes of Jesus Christ himself, or is art subjective to the point where sacrilege is no longer viable in art or photography? Religious historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade wrote: “This is not to say that the ‘sacred’ has completely disappeared in modern art. But it has become unrecognizable; it is camouflaged in forms, purposes and meanings that are apparently ‘profane.’ The sacred is not obvious, as it was for example in the art of the Middle Ages. One does not recognize it immediately and easily, because it is no longer expressed in a conventional religious language.” This quote connotes back to my point in my previous chapter when I mention that although art in the Middle Ages, or in this instance, the Renaissance was conventional or appropriate for its context, the true genesis of some those paintings stemmed from unconventional agendas. Another example of modern iconoclastic art is that of Chris Ofili, with his painting ‘The Holy Virgin Mary’ which depicts a black woman wearing a blue robe, a traditional attribute of the Virgin Mary, who then is surrounded by collages of the female genitalia.

Although it may not be a photograph, it comes to show most contemporary art generally, projects a jarring contrast between its existence today and thousands of years ago. This particular piece of work shares the same scandalous spectrum with Serrano and his ‘Piss Christ’, with the juxtaposition of explicit contents. The iconographic items in the case of religiously charged images enhance their capacity to reach into the depths of a viewer’s psychology, as Serrano once said “Creativity is a subconscious process and it’s not always possible to know where it will lead you. Nor should it.” you could say it was Serrano’s attempt on grasping Christ’s humanity, consequently it struck a few chords within the public's own idea of humanity. As artists, we should all have the freedom to express our ideas the way we want, in the same vein, once these boundaries are crossed, will it soon warrant further lines to be crossed until we go down a complex spiral of wondering what is right, what is wrong? In Serrano’s words “you can’t have the sacred without the profane, like you can’t have the good without the bad”, but is it the same as encouraging or normalising profanity in art? Should what’s sacred be kept as sacred, protected from exploitation and abuse? Or do we, viewers, interpret the art differently, even if the piece itself is re-contextualised, viewers will always interpret it with their own personal understanding of that image, religion especially. Christ is a very personal phenomenon to many, and artists and photographers embody that idea in ways that not everyone will understand. Especially with Serrano being a christian himself, many will perceive that as an unexplainable paradox that can’t be justified.

Christine Valters Paintner wrote the book “Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice” which looks into cultivating photography as a spiritual practice. Paintner brings perspective on spirituality and God using photography as a metaphor. What is interesting about this is how she endearingly writes on how us as creatures understand the world through our senses, through images and sensual language, but also mentions how no one has ever seen God but one shall only feel God, she writes, “We get in trouble when we identify God solely with a narrow range of images, limiting God to only those possibilities”. Contrary to how many artists choose to invision Christ and God, this sets a contemplative standard of how maybe such holy matters could be handled.


Some may view photography as simply a continuation of painting, a way of keeping visual art fresh and alive, while others may see it as simply a response, a painting's younger, rebellious sister. Nonetheless, they complement each other. After extensively researching the relationship between photography and religion, it is difficult to say whether it is a negative or a positive one, however it’ll always remain a complex one.In summary, this study indicates that the infiltration of traditional Christian religious imagery from painting into photography has caused the mediums own transformation, and that the religious background of Christian photographers/artists has added to their treatment of such material.

The practitioners mentioned (aka; Da Vinci, Serrano, Paintner, Michaelangelo, Eliade) all portray distinctive versions of their own stance on religion or Christ and their relationship with him. Art and religion have coexisted for centuries, and could argue that from what was mentioned in chapter 1, they’re more than likely friends other than foes. On the other hand photography and religion have challenged each other since the birth of the latter. In the world of painting, the brush can go anywhere the mind wants it to, from the deepest corners of your brain to what's in front of the artist, it has always been a way of making the somewhat impossible feel a bit more real. Once photography was established it wasn’t as close to being respected, as it was merely just factual and dull, so it simultaneously took on a different stride, went down a different path to separate itself from the shadow of painting, resulting in different takes on what's ‘conventional’.

So as photography stemmed from painting, this suggests that Christianity, and specifically Catholicism, may have both stimulated and influenced the emergence and development of photographic imagery. However much to Christianity’s displeasure, the relationship between art and religion, and more specifically in photography, has remained problematic, particularly to Christianity. Artists show us new ways to see familiar things, and how to interpret new situations and events through various kinds of visual creations, however now it might be up to us as a society, to absorb and filter through these newfound representations. The oldest purpose of art or photography was a vehicle of worship and to glorify, however now living in a more secular age, art has become a vehicle of self expression.

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