I went to a concert in London with my friend J. The sacred choral work we heard has gone from my memory, but not his question afterwards: “How many times in the course of that did you think of our Risen Lord?” “None,” I replied. I wondered if J. had himself been thinking of our Risen Lord; after all, he is the son of a clergyman, and has the habit—unique among people I know—of saying “God bless” as a farewell. Might this be indicative of the extent of his belief? Or is It just a linguistic remnant, like saying “Grüss Gott” in parts of Germany?
Missing God is focused for me by missing the underlying sense of purpose and belief when confronted with religious art. It is one of the haunting hypotheticals for the nonbeliever: what would it be like “if it were true” . . . Imagine hearing the Mozart Requiem in a great cathedral—or, for that matter, Poulenc’s fishermen’s mass in a clifftop chapel damp from salt spray—and taking the text as gospel; imagine reading Giotto’s holy strip-cartoon in the chapel at Padua as nonfiction; imagine looking on a Donatello as the actual face of the suffering Christ or the weeping Magdalene. It would—to put it mildly—add a bit of extra oomph, wouldn’t it?
This may seem an irrelevant and vulgar wish—for more gas in the tank, more alcohol in the wine; for a better (or somehow bigger) aesthetic experience. But it’s more than that. Edith Wharton understood the feeling—and the disadvantage—of admiring churches and cathedrals when you no longer believe in what those buildings represent; and she described the process of trying to imagine yourself back through the centuries in order to understand it and feel it. Yet even the best imaginer-back cannot end up with exactly what a Christian would have felt gazing up at the newly installed stained glass of Bourges Cathedral, or listening to a Bach cantata in St. Thomas’s, Leipzig, or rereading a long-told biblical story in a Rembrandt etching. That Christian would, presumably, have been concerned more with truth than aesthetics; or at least, their estimation of an artist’s greatness would have been guided by the effectiveness and originality (or, for that matter, familiarity) with which the tenets of religion were expounded.
Does it matter if we take the religion out of religious art, if we aestheticize it into mere colours, structures, sounds, their essential meaning as distant as a childhood memory? Or is that a pointless question, as we don’t have the choice? Pretending to beliefs we don’t have during Mozart’s Requiem is like pretending to find Shakespeare’s horn jokes funny (though some theatre goers still relentlessly laugh). A few years ago I was at the Birmingham City Art Gallery. In one glassed-in corner, there is a small, intense painting by Petrus Christus of Christ displaying his wounds: with outstretched forefinger and thumb he indicates where the spear went in—even invites us to measure the gash. His crown of thorns has sprouted into a gilt, spun-sugar halo of glory. Two saints, one with a lily and the other with a sword, attend him, drawing back the green velvet drapes of a strangely domestic proscenium. As I was stepping away from my inspection, I became aware of a track-suited father and small son travelling towards me at a lively art-hating clip. The father, equipped with better trainers and more stamina, held a yard or two’s advantage as they turned this corner. The boy glanced into the exhibition case and asked, in a strong Brummy accent, “Why’s that man holding his chest, Dad?” The father, without breaking stride, managed a quick look back and an instant answer: “Dunno.”
However much pleasure and truth we draw from the nonreligious art created especially for us, however fully it engages our aesthetic selves, it would be a pity if our reaction to what has preceded it was finally diminished to a Dunno. But of course this is happening. Wall captions in galleries increasingly explain such events as the Annuncication, or the Assumption of the Virgin – though rarely the identity of all those squadrons of symbol-bearing saints. I would have needed my own iconographical dictionary if someone had asked me to name the two attendants in the Petrus Christus.
What will it be like when Christians forget the immense symbolic and iconographical heritage which has been two millennia in the making? It will be like this.
Recently, I was in Athens, and found myself looking for the first time at Cycladic marble figurines. These were made around 3000-2000 BC, are predominantly female, and come in two main types: semi-abstract violin shapes, and more naturalistic representations of a stylistically elongated body. The latter typically propose: a long nose on a shield-like head devoid of other features; a stretched neck; arms folded across the stomach, left arm invariably above the right; a sketched pubic triangle; a chiselled division between the legs; feet in a tiptoe position.
They are images of singular purity, gravity and beauty, which come at you like a quiet, sustained note heard across a hushed concert hall. From the moment you see one of these forms, most no higher than a handspan, rising before you, you seem to understand them aesthetically; and they appear to collude in this, urging you to bypass any historico-archaeological wall information. This is partly because they evoke so clearly their modernist descendants: Picasso, Modigliani, Brancusi. Both evoke, and surpass: it is good to see those admirable tyrants of modernism being made to look less original by a community of unknown Cycladic carvers; good also to be reminded that the history of art is circular as well as linear. When this brief moment of vaguely pugilistic self-congratulation has passed, you settle into, and open yourself up to, the tranquility and symbolic withholdingness of the figures. Now, different comparisons come to mind: Piero or Vermeer. You are in the presence of a stately simplicity, and a transcendent calm which seems to contain all the depths of the Aegean, and offer a rebuke to our frantic modern world. A world which has increasingly admired these items, and so desired more of them than can possibly exist. Forgery, like hypocrisy, is the homage vice pays to virtue, and in this case much homage has been paid.
But what exactly have you, or rather I – yes, I’d better take the blame of this one – been looking at? And were my reactions, however pantingly authentic, relevant to the objects in front of me? (Or do aesthetic objects, over time, become, or dwindle into, our reactions to them?) That all-over pale creaminess which lends such an air of serenity would not originally have existed: the heads, at least, would have been vibrantly painted. The minimalist – and proto-modernist – incising is at least in part a practical consequence of the marble being extremely hard to crave. The vertical presence – the way these small images rise to meet us on tiptoe, and thereby seem to calmly dominate us – is a curatorial invention, since most were intended to be lain down horizontally. As for the rebuking tranquility they emanate, it is rather the stillness and rigidity of the tomb. We may look at Cycladic figurines aesthetically – we cannot do otherwise – but their function was as grave goods. We value them by displaying them in musems under carefully arranged light; their creators would have valued them by burying them in the ground, invisible to all except the spirits of the dead. And what exactly—or even roughly—did they believe, the people who produced such objects?
From Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes.
The painting is Caravaggio’s depiction of — you knew this didn’t you? — Saint Jerome.