Perambulating the Bounds

Monday, August 01, 2005

NY Times Review of Religious Art in Context

Holland Cotter had a great review in last Friday’s NY Times ( It’s on an exhibit in Worcester of art that was produced in response to the plague in Europe from 1500-1800. Cotter explains that the curators have presented the works within their functional religious context, as acts of or prompts to devotion, talismans, and manuals offering instruction in piety. The paintings are viewed “through the eyes of a believer for whom a picture of the Virgin is a moral lesson and an emotional encounter before it is a Tiepolo or Tintoretto.”
Maybe because I’m part of the church-going world, I’ve been aware of the oddness in how we experience religious art in a museum – taken from its altar or chapel, lined up with other disparate paintings along a wall. In church we to some extent integrate the visual elements (sculpture, carvings, stained glass, painting) into the rest of our liturgical work. It’s not always great art, but it does the trick, and there’s no reason it can’t be great art. The Rothko Chapel works superlatively as a functional space for meditation, and you can never quite reach the same psychic space with a Rothko in a gallery, no matter how sensitively staged.
All you have to do is think about music to see Cotter’s point. We have different expectations of church music than concert or club music. I wouldn’t want to listen to a crowd singing the doxology, but I look forward to it as part of a service. There is unquestionably great church music (start with Bach). And you can go to some churches where it is performed at a stellar level – I have a friend who sings in the choir at St. Bartholomew’s on Park Ave. in NY, and it sounds like a superb group. But most people also tolerate something less perfectly executed. The purposes and expectations are different than a concert.
Cotter’s last paragraph is great:
“This approach also prompts an encouraging thought. Maybe someday in the future, when we are not here, a few bright scholars will re-examine art produced in response to AIDS in the United States in the late 20th century, and in Africa at the beginning of the 21st century. And maybe those scholars will choose to focus not on the comparative quality of objects or styles, but on intangible elements that science tends to be shy of: how art provokes emotion and conveys belief, and how a certain kind of art, at a certain time, gave certain people who felt the earth had been swept away beneath them a place to stand.”


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