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Carpenter's Writings

The Religious Influence of Art


 

 


CHAPTER  III.

 

Thus Art is really more cognate to Religion than to a formal Morality. For if it does not present us directly with the thought of a personal Deity, yet it delights in everything to embody the idea of personality or power; and while it makes its appeal to us through our emotions and affections, which ever seek for a personal being to which to attach themselves, it throws round the object of our search a halo of mystery which belongs to our thoughts of Him whose ways are past finding out.

If we now turn to the influence of Art in the various religious services or ceremonials, we shall see this more clearly. All religions, from the earliest to the most en­lightened, have embodied the ideas of personality and mys­tery; the rudest fetichism investing these ideas with all the terrors of a demon-god, the purest Christianity holding them as the centre of all emotions of love and sympathy. What appears to have been the very earliest symbol of deity-the serpent-seems also to have owed its importance to its embodiment in one of these two ideas. The snake, with its glittering, fascinating eyes, intensely alive, unlike all other creatures, yet exercising mysterious influence on them, even on man; endued with inexplicable powers of gliding motion, a secrecy of movement unassisted by leg or wing or any of the ordinary means-with these endowments it became, even in the times of vast civilisations which now sleep in the thick forests of Ceylon and Burmah, the representative of highest divinity.

The hieroglyphic tracery, the ‘dim religious light' of the Eastern temples, the mystic dances of the Therapeutae, were all to a certain extent artistic embodiments of that same sense of the mysteriousness, the infinitude, of the Being to whom the worship was paid.

Greece cherished a religion which chiefly embodied the thought of personality, and which was so closely connected with their Art that we can scarcely disentangle the two. Under the hands of their poets and sculptors the great whole of Nature became a theatre of individual gods. Day and night, spring and winter, rock and stream and tree were in­vested with a conception of personality whose exact meaning it is difficult now to determine, but which perhaps in its highest sense is best expressed by Virgil in his well-known lines:-

 

Principio coelum ac terrain camposque liquentes Lucentemque globum Lunae Titaniaque astra Spiritus intus alit: totamque infusa per artus Mens agitat molem et magno se corpore miscet.

 

Thus, to them, Nature became almost one with hu­manity through the gods; for the latter, drawn from Nature, were invested with a human shape and became the ancestors and contemporaries of traditional heroes. And so, finally, the gods became the mediators, but only the mediators, between the terrible necessity of Nature and the helplessness of humanity. The hapless Oedipus might cry to Zeus for deliverance, but Zeus himself was crowned from above by a higher power-Nemesis, or the inexorable Ate-who was indeed nothing else than the unfailing misery which for ever follows in the wake of evil. The Greek Art thus took to itself the whole field of theology, and through the mouths of such men as Aeschylus led the nation in a path which we cannot but call glorions, since it brought forth the philosophy of the Stoics. But when the Stoical element died away and the Will of man was no longer called to stand against the natural forces, Art simultaneously became degraded by sen­suality; and, dragging down the conception of the gods with it, left them to be nothing better than a butt for the shafts of ridicule and contempt.

How different was all this from the results of Brahminism! yet both sprang from the seeing of divinity in Nature; but one people invested this divinity with the strong reflection of its own sense of personality, the other with the longing for a mystic union in which all should ‘fuse the skirts of self again' and remerge into the general soul. And I think it is not too much to say that, in both cases, Art, springing up originally as the expression of the religious idea, became ultimately the leader of that religion, and was responsible to a very great degree for its rise or fall.

In modern times, painting and music have risen by the side of architecture to great importance in religious service. As far as the influence of painting is concerned, in respect to Christianity, I shall not include its bare representation of the facts of Christ's life as belonging to our subject. In so far as a picture merely conveys the relation of a fact, it does not strictly come under the domain of Art; and, we may also say, it can have little or no influence on the religious condition of any beholder. But as soon as a picture conveys something more than this-the ideal struggle with evil, the triumph of hope, the purity of a sublime faith-then it becomes a work of Art, and becomes too a determining power of great import­ance to the spiritual nature of man. How inexpressibly painful, how little promotive of good is a meanly conceived and badly executed picture of the crucifixion! On the other hand, how beautiful and how full of all great thoughts is one by some masterhand in which the ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?' of the fainting man is crowned by the glorious ‘It is finished' of the triumphant Godhead. The great Italian pictures have been, from time to time, since the days of Cimabue, the rallying points and centres of the love and religious enthusiasm of the people. And the Madonnas of Raffaelle or the Sibyls of Guido and Guercino, still hold before them crowds of gazers, in their silence attesting the deep thoughts with which they are inspired.

What then are we to say to all the pictures of inferior Art, or of no Art at all, which fill the various churches of Europe? There are many so bad that, even to the most uncritical and enthusiastic spirit, they can present nothing but a bare fact-that St Anthony kept pigs for instance, or that St Benedict lived in a cave and had bread and water brought to him by a neighbouring monk. These appear to me abso­lutely to do no good, rather, in fact, to do harm; their direct tendency is to put forward the superstitious or magical idea of religion, and to make people wish to be hogherds or to live in a cave, under the impression that such a proceeding will put their souls in a more favourable light. It is the same with pictures of the life of Christ. If they serve only to breed a familiarity with the mere outward history of his actions, without setting before people a spiritual example for all time with a force which urges the beholder to follow it, they become worse than useless, for they deaden his receptivity by the force of habit, without leaving him any counterbalancing advantage.

Again, when a picture has some claim to artistic power, but does not embody the highest Art, it will certainly carry many evils along with the good it does; for though it may, to an uneducated person or to one wanting in any critical faculty, seem to awake high feelings and desires; yet, amongst the many who will discover glaring errors in it, there are generally very few, who, at the same time, have sufficient liberality of mind not to be prejudiced by it against the very religion which it is meant to uphold. This is just the case with much of our church music; but, above all, is it the case with the gaudy pictures that cover the walls of Roman Catholic churches and chapels in France and even in Italy. There, a large class of the educated have sprung aside with contempt from what they call the religion of the common herd. They, no doubt, despise the shallowness of doctrine with which the people are put off; but one great stumblingblock is the tawdry Art which, in gilding and paint, in altar-piece or vestment, seems to offer an insult to every educated mind, and to represent a mocking farce carried on by the priesthood. This last is not perhaps really the case; the priests, as a rule, are honest and true men, who have no intention of presenting to the people a religion that they do not believe in themselves. But in most cases, no doubt, they know and recognise that they must present it to the people in a form somewhat different from that in which they receive it themselves: as indeed every cultivated man must know that he must lay aside very much of that which is most impressive to him, if he would produce any impression on the mob. Nothing seems more certain and, at the same time, more disappointing than the reflection that the things which are the highest in Art, which seem to speak their message so clearly and beautifully that none could fail to comprehend, do in reality convey absolutely no impression to the uncultivated, and that these latter must after all be educated by means of broad contrasts and violent discords before they can learn to appreciate the value of proportion and harmony. But this fact often turns what ought to be the sympathy of the refined into a mere heartless contempt; of evil issue to both parties. This contempt, which converts those who would be the Liberal section into a mere party of scoffers, is finding a home in England too as well as in France. Here too they cannot separate the accidental from the essen­tial, they will not see that men practically connect the same spiritual thoughts with a great variety of forms chosen ac­cording to their education. So, because their neighbour derives peace of mind from the singing of the ‘Old Hundredth,' while they, for their part, are perhaps only pained by the untuneful efforts of the singers, and would rather, for the same purpose, seek some secluded scene of Nature; they, with great illiberality, charge him with deceit, and would be glad to see him and his Psalm-tunes and all the concomitants swept clean away. For this same reason it happens that, in Germany, the women, who represent the uneducated class, go to church; but the men not only do not go, but despise those who do and the whole affair; and, to a certain extent, for no other reason than that the composition of the music and of the hymns and sermon is not of a very high order.