I don’t really get art. I couldn’t tell you whether a painting was done by a renaissance master or the local community college art teacher. While some of this is probably due to sort of an emperor’s new clothes style tastemaking by elites, I’ll concede that some of it may be due to my tastes being lowbrow.
That being said, below are the handful of works of “great art” that move me spiritually, even if Picasso or Degas don’t really do anything for me. These aren’t all the works of art that move me spiritually–like I mentioned earlier this week I especially love the Church’s International Art competition for this reason–but are specifically the “great works” that do so.
Especially appropriate for Holy Week, Agnus Dei simply shows a bound lamb, but the calm expression on that lamb’s face reminds me of a point an MTC teacher made about her sheep-butchering father. When it comes time to slit the sheep’s throat, the lamb doesn’t fight, it just kind of looks at you with big eyes as you get the knife out and keep it calm right before the knife goes in. I couldn’t tell you why, but the image and the expression combined is a powerful depiction of the sentiment behind the Atonement.
The Creation of Adam
A lot of church art from this time is rather dark, focusing on the pains of martyrdom and the battle against evil; in contrast, The Creation of Adam depicts a kind of Frierberg-esque righteous masculinity and the glory of creation.
The Calling of St. Matthew
I’ve mentioned before that artistically I’m not a fan of smiling Jesus; I think a lot of depictions that take that approach make him look goofy, but to each their own. Carravagio’s Christ has a subtle, non-didactic power. The halo is barely visible; his face isn’t directly lit, with the lighting instead directed towards St. Matthew, except here even the identity of St Matthew is ambiguous. While the most obvious option is the bearded man seemingly pointing to himself, some scholars have suggested that Matthew is the man outside the light with his head slouched. I kind of like this second option more.
Finally, Christ as the second Adam is subtly communicated, easily missable if you’re not paying attention, by the fact that Christ’s hand is an almost carbon copy of Adam’s hand in the Sistine Chapel painting above.
It’s hard to not be wowed by Gothic architecture, especially if you’re a young missionary in Europe whose previous exposure to large religious edifices was limited to the Salt Lake Temple (as impressive as that is in its own right). It becomes all the more impressive when you get the back-story about these edifices being built by people often on the edge of starvation. Gothic architecture relied on new technological advents to increase the size of the windows without destabilizing the structure, thereby allowing more light in order to better convey a sense of Heaven. Interestingly, the motif of generating even brighter lights to represent the celestial presence finds its logical endpoint in the celestial rooms of Latter-day Saint temples, which I imagine are some of the brightest holy spaces among world religions.
For me, the visual arts are just as critical to worship as sacred music. An art museum is as spiritual as any worship service, if not more so. Art can make us think. It can transport us back in time. It helps us reevaluate who we are. It can give us a new appreciation for God’s creations.
While I appreciate the majesty of Gothic architecture, I love the primitive and chunky Romanesque architecture. It’s solid sturdiness gives it an everlasting appearance. And much of its sculptural work has a childlike primitive style that I find appealing.
Apparently, the Church has a list of 25 “art” works that are acceptable in meeting house. Most qualify as illustration more than fine art. They don’t really challenge or inspire us. It would be great for the Church to be more expansive in its appreciation and understanding of art and its potential spiritual impacts.
The segue between Gothic architecture and the celestial room in temples does work for me.
In the last sentence, I meant “doesn’t work for me.”
I’d be enthusiastic about the Church expanding the list to, say, a thousand paintings, but in principle I’m okay with keeping a list. While a list would presumably keep out abstract art that more artsy people would like, on the other hand it would also keep out Jon McNaughton paintings (I knew I was forgetting something on my list ;)