Art of the Ages

While traveling throughout Europe, I have seen a great deal of art and religious art in particular.  During medieval times and the Renaissance, most art was religious in nature and there are certainly a lot of religious sculptures and paintings in the churches and cathedrals.  After examining all these extraordinary works from throughout the ages, I have had several questions to wrestle with, things I have pondered and asked about our view of God and self.


Look at the sculpture pictured above.  What do you notice?  What do you see?  One of the things I notice as I look at it is that everyone is dressed in the clothes of the time this sculpture was carved.  This it true for much of the religious art I have seen.  Rarely are the figures dressed in clothes they may have actually worn.  Think about the amount of fabric here, would they have actually worn that much?  Of course not!  Fabric fibers were harvested, cleaned, carded, dyed, spun, woven and then sewn. There is an immense amount of work in that process and they would have not wasted fabric on extra folds or trains.  They would have needed to be able to move around to do their work.  Only the rich could afford flowing robes.  So why are they pictured in clothes such as these?  Why go so far out of their original context?

The reason the artists went outside of the character’s context is because they weren’t painting the Biblical context, they were painting their own.  They weren’t concerned about staying true to the historicity of the times, they wanted to paint theirs.  They painted and sculpted to bring the stories of the Bible into their own world, into their understanding.  If we did that today, the disciples would be wearing jeans and t-shirts that say, “Gone Fishing”.  But in the modern western culture, we spend immense amounts of time understanding the “original context”, the Biblical cultures, clothing, and way of behavior.  We want to find out what they ate, what their houses were like, and the practices of their social structures. 

So we have two different cultures with two different views on the Biblical stories: one culture that put them into their own context and another who study the context in its original setting.  So here is my question: which is it?  Were they wrong to try to understand the stories through the lens of their own culture?  Are we wrong to keep the stories at such an objective distance?  Do one of us have the better idea?  Are we both wrong?  Are we both right?  Is there even a right and wrong in the first place?

I believe that when it comes down to it, we are both right and we are both wrong, if right and wrong are even the best terms for it.  I love the truths both views represent.  On one end, we study the original settings which help us better understand what the writers meant, the importance of some of the details in the stories.  But if we leave the stories there, they mean little.  We need to then bring these stories and characters into our own contexts, into our time frame and find out how these stories written so long ago are our stories, how they hold the truths of our lives.

At the same time, if we go too far in one direction, if we forget to look at the writers’ original context and read what they said entirely into our own world, or if we spend so long studying what they said to their culture and forget what they are saying to our own, then we are missing the whole point of why they wrote.  God’s word is always new, always speaking.  It spoke to their time, it spoke to those in the Middle Ages, and it speaks to ours here and now.  Art is supposed to be creative, to make us see things we might have missed, and whether that art places characters in clothes of their time or in ours doesn’t matter so much as the message those stories convey. 

To take this to an even broader level of Truth, I have also been asking myself a question on top of the first: do we insist on clothing God in what we see as the truth of our times?  Do we play dress-up with God?  Do we place our values and desires upon God, assuming the Lord agrees with what we hold as important?  There must be a reason most religious art of the past hasn’t even tried to portray God directly, only Jesus.  Did they know this could never be done?  So why do we try to do the very thing they never even dared attempt?  Why do we portray God in metaphorical modern day clothing and ideas, that same pair of jeans and a t-shirt that proclaims, “Turn or burn!”  God is so much bigger than that, better than that.  He outstrips us, our understandings, our ideas, our conceptions.  God wants us to search after him, to try to understand him, but not to put him inside our understanding.  He is the painter, we are the painted.

So take a step back and take another one forwards.  Put God in context then let God get back out again.  Study the art before you, either on canvas, in stone, or written onto the bark and brooks of the larger world, and see what stands out to you.    How do you see the origins of the story?  And how do you see the one who originated you?  The painter is still painting.


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Walking the Sea: Art of the Ages

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Art of the Ages

While traveling throughout Europe, I have seen a great deal of art and religious art in particular.  During medieval times and the Renaissance, most art was religious in nature and there are certainly a lot of religious sculptures and paintings in the churches and cathedrals.  After examining all these extraordinary works from throughout the ages, I have had several questions to wrestle with, things I have pondered and asked about our view of God and self.


Look at the sculpture pictured above.  What do you notice?  What do you see?  One of the things I notice as I look at it is that everyone is dressed in the clothes of the time this sculpture was carved.  This it true for much of the religious art I have seen.  Rarely are the figures dressed in clothes they may have actually worn.  Think about the amount of fabric here, would they have actually worn that much?  Of course not!  Fabric fibers were harvested, cleaned, carded, dyed, spun, woven and then sewn. There is an immense amount of work in that process and they would have not wasted fabric on extra folds or trains.  They would have needed to be able to move around to do their work.  Only the rich could afford flowing robes.  So why are they pictured in clothes such as these?  Why go so far out of their original context?

The reason the artists went outside of the character’s context is because they weren’t painting the Biblical context, they were painting their own.  They weren’t concerned about staying true to the historicity of the times, they wanted to paint theirs.  They painted and sculpted to bring the stories of the Bible into their own world, into their understanding.  If we did that today, the disciples would be wearing jeans and t-shirts that say, “Gone Fishing”.  But in the modern western culture, we spend immense amounts of time understanding the “original context”, the Biblical cultures, clothing, and way of behavior.  We want to find out what they ate, what their houses were like, and the practices of their social structures. 

So we have two different cultures with two different views on the Biblical stories: one culture that put them into their own context and another who study the context in its original setting.  So here is my question: which is it?  Were they wrong to try to understand the stories through the lens of their own culture?  Are we wrong to keep the stories at such an objective distance?  Do one of us have the better idea?  Are we both wrong?  Are we both right?  Is there even a right and wrong in the first place?

I believe that when it comes down to it, we are both right and we are both wrong, if right and wrong are even the best terms for it.  I love the truths both views represent.  On one end, we study the original settings which help us better understand what the writers meant, the importance of some of the details in the stories.  But if we leave the stories there, they mean little.  We need to then bring these stories and characters into our own contexts, into our time frame and find out how these stories written so long ago are our stories, how they hold the truths of our lives.

At the same time, if we go too far in one direction, if we forget to look at the writers’ original context and read what they said entirely into our own world, or if we spend so long studying what they said to their culture and forget what they are saying to our own, then we are missing the whole point of why they wrote.  God’s word is always new, always speaking.  It spoke to their time, it spoke to those in the Middle Ages, and it speaks to ours here and now.  Art is supposed to be creative, to make us see things we might have missed, and whether that art places characters in clothes of their time or in ours doesn’t matter so much as the message those stories convey. 

To take this to an even broader level of Truth, I have also been asking myself a question on top of the first: do we insist on clothing God in what we see as the truth of our times?  Do we play dress-up with God?  Do we place our values and desires upon God, assuming the Lord agrees with what we hold as important?  There must be a reason most religious art of the past hasn’t even tried to portray God directly, only Jesus.  Did they know this could never be done?  So why do we try to do the very thing they never even dared attempt?  Why do we portray God in metaphorical modern day clothing and ideas, that same pair of jeans and a t-shirt that proclaims, “Turn or burn!”  God is so much bigger than that, better than that.  He outstrips us, our understandings, our ideas, our conceptions.  God wants us to search after him, to try to understand him, but not to put him inside our understanding.  He is the painter, we are the painted.

So take a step back and take another one forwards.  Put God in context then let God get back out again.  Study the art before you, either on canvas, in stone, or written onto the bark and brooks of the larger world, and see what stands out to you.    How do you see the origins of the story?  And how do you see the one who originated you?  The painter is still painting.


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1 Comments:

At May 29, 2011 at 8:39 PM , Anonymous Tim Magee said...

These kinds of thoughts and questions dog me. It seems to require nerve just to consider questions about God and how ideas about him are framed or given context. I could make comments about these matters being above my pay grade, but it seems no one has all the answers or even one good reason for believing some things.

 

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