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Sunday, December 8, 2013

More on that Christian art thing

Knight, Death and the Devil, woodcut, by Albrecht Dürer, 1513
Part of the heated discussion that ensued after my post Friday about the so-called problem of Christian music expressed a general irritation with performers who identify themselves as Christian artists. We’re all aware of the capacity of modern artists to drape themselves over the cross for marketing purposes. However, there has always been a distinction between artists who work in religious themes because that is their marketplace, and those who are genuinely faith-driven.

Albrecht Dürer achieved extraordinary success very quickly. He produced a variety of works including many of a secular nature, and actively sought and exploited the patronage of Maximillian I. None of that indicates a profoundly religious man.

However, Dürer left a large body of writing that indicates that at some time he had a true religious conversion. He became an early and enthusiastic follower of Martin Luther.  His new Protestant sympathies can be felt in his later work, a transition pushed along by the death of his patron in 1519.

In 1524, Dürer wrote that “because of our Christian faith we have to stand in scorn and danger, for we are reviled and called heretics.” And in expressing thanks for the gift of one of Luther’s books, he wrote, “I pray Your Honor to convey my humble gratitude to His Electoral grace, and beg him humbly that he will protect the praiseworthy Dr. Martin Luther for the sake of Christian truth. It matters more than all the riches and power of this world, for with time everything passes away; only the truth is eternal.”

Circle of the Lustful: Francesca da Rimini ('The Whirlwind of Lovers') 1826-7, from William Blake’s illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
William Blake is another artist whose copious writings make his religious fervor easy to document. However, understanding them is another matter entirely. (I confess I take him in small doses.) His illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy include extensive margin notes in which he argues with Dante’s theology.

Blake was literally a visionary: he saw visions from childhood on. He was a believer, but he hated the church. His contemporaries thought him quite mad. But his poem “And did those feet in ancient time” comes down to us as the great patriotic hymn Jerusalem, set by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916.

I kind of like his assessment of the character of Jesus:

If he had been Antichrist Creeping Jesus,
He'd have done anything to please us:
Gone sneaking into Synagogues
And not us'd the Elders & Priests like Dogs,
But humble as a Lamb or Ass,
Obey'd himself to Caiaphas.
God wants not Man to Humble himself.

Conversion on the Way to Damascus by Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, 1601
Compare these two painters to Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, another brilliant painter of religious scenes. His patrons were Cardinal Francesco del Monte and Cardinal Girolamo Mattei, and his subject matter was overwhelmingly religious, but Caravaggio could by no stretch of the imagination be described as a “Christian artist.” A brawler with an extensive police record, he managed to nick a rival in the groin with his sword, severing an artery and killing the poor man. This led to Caravaggio’s exile and ultimately to his death.


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2 comments:

Mike McCleer said...

I don't think you can contrast and compare so easily. Your two selected "religious" artists expressed themselves in their writings; Caravaggio did not. Your summaries of the artists' lives seem journalistic - particularly Caravaggio's. And you did not venture an opinion on whose religious art is purer/more sincere - and can we consider - better?

Carol Douglas said...

I almost never consider art as "better" or "worse," since as a working artist and teacher I've long since discovered that almost all work has some unique spark of genius to it. My summaries are of necessity limited by the nature of a blog. Both Blake's and Dürer's writings are available extensively. I recommend in particular "The Divine Comedy of William Blake" by David Bindman, a book which I've treasured for years. For Dürer, I don't have such an easy recommendation, and in truth I'd like to understand more about his religious conversion, since it seems simplistic to say, "something happened around 1520 that made him a follower of Luther."

Another artist I would have mentioned had I not run out of room was the lovely British visionary painter, Sir Stanley Spencer.

Thank you so much for your comments.