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Art Divides Religion
Of all the great divisions in the monotheistic religions of the world, art is one of the most divisive. It cuts with a keen edge into two camps, those that do and those that don't. That is, those who read the second of the Ten Commandments from a broadly conservative point of view, and those who make of it a narrow, liberal interpretation. The second commandment reads: "You shall not make a carved image for yourself nor the likeness of anything in the heavens above or in the earth below, or in the waters under the earth." Judaic and Islamic followers take this quite literally. Jewish people eschew most figural representation insofar as spiritual matters are concerned and Islamic followers go a step beyond that to ban nearly all of what we in the western world consider art entirely from their daily lives. And though the commandment specifically mentions only carved images, Jews and Muslims generally interpret this to also include painting. The prophet Mohammed said that on Judgement Day, God will command every painter standing before him to give life to his pictures. And when he fails, he will be cast into hell for laying claim to God's creative power.

The Christian church in its early, formative years was itself ambivalent about art. Whether through doctrine, or a lack of trained Christian artists, the earliest Christian art, that of the Roman catacombs, for the most part restricts itself to religious symbols. The earliest depictions of Christ seem to have been personal rather than official elements in religious decoration. Iconography split the Eastern Orthodox church in the eighth century and the Catholic church during the Reformation in the seventeenth century. From the time it was legalised by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 313 CE, the western church seems to have read the second commandment from a narrow point of view, reasoning that it banned only the worship of carved images, rather than the images or other manifestations of figural art itself.

The Catholic church, early on, seems to have decided the ends of religious indoctrination justified the means of sculptural and painted art. That is, they considered it a tool for imparting the lessons of faith to the illiterate, as visual examples of the life of Christ and the saints, and as a means of stimulating prayer and devotion. Consequently, nearly all art created before the eighteenth century had some religious significance. And in fact, the church seems to have overdosed on art in decorating its places of worship, triggering an almost cataclysmic decline in religious art as the reformation and counterreformation made their impact felt. In northern Europe, where the reformation was most powerful, many churches seem to have followed the Islamic tack and began scouring the walls of their sanctuaries of religious painting while selling off the work of earlier sculptors to private collectors.

With the advent of widespread literacy in the Christian world during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the church found it easier to bow to reformation forces than contend with artists, who had never been that easy to contend with in the first place. Then too, artists, for their part, while missing the patronage, may also have been somewhat "burned out" insofar as religious works were concerned. Even Rembrandt and Rubens had to struggle mightily to match the work of Michelangelo and Caravaggio. It was much easier to satisfy the broader taste of wealthy collectors, kings, queens, dukes and duchesses than the strict religious structures of the Catholic church, even when still creating works with religious themes.

Eventually, even private collectors lost their taste for religious works, starting early in the nineteenth century and into our own. The church, when it had need of them at all, used artists primarily as interior decorators rather than relying upon them to impart doctrine or illustrate religious events. And so today, while the split is still there, it's of far less consequence. Only the Islamic world today continues to insist upon living without art for religious reasons (except insofar as calligraphy and architecture are considered arts). Although the Mormon Church and certain religious sects continue to ban painting and sculpture as part of their worship environment, few would contend, as did Mohammed, that all artists will be sent straight to hell for their endeavours (though perhaps some should be).

Contributed by Lane, Jim
31 December 2000

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