Art and the Roman Catholic Church have ties that go back to the simple foundation of Christianity itself. Through the beginning of the 1st century through modern times, art has played a crucial role for the church and it’s 2.1 billion person following. Art has been used to portray events in the history of Catholicism as well as to convey the message of the Bible, the Christian religions most valued source of information. Artistic styles have varied throughout the years, taking on a gothic look after the era of the Byzantine Empire, the Romanesque style of architecture, diving into forms of art such as theatre and poem, art and the Catholic Church have been tightly associated for centuries.
Before the relationship between art and the Catholic church can be expressed, the term “art”, must first be defined. St. Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274) relates art and religion by sharing that, “The knowledge of God is to all creatures what the knowledge of the artificer is to things made by his art.”i The influential philosopher brings together a comparison of the mystery of faith and ties it to art. The meaning of his quotes is to address the level of God’s knowledge in a way where people will understand. He does this by comparing God’s knowledge to that of an artist, how no one knows exactly why things are the way they are besides the artist, therefore the exact purpose is left to interpretation. Because art has been around longer than written word has, it gives a special insight to the earliest periods in the time of the Catholic church.
The oldest form of art found in Christianity is dated to the early 2nd century, where sculptures were found on Roman coffins.ii These coffins would usually depict Christian symbols such as the fish, the cross, or the dove, and only be recognizable to fellow Christians due to the vast amount of persecution amongst the Christian religion. These symbols are seen as the earliest forms of art and Christianity. Many Christian beliefs are based and formed on artists depictions of what happened during the life of Jesus Christ as well as before he was alive. “Here one is faced with the awkward fact that the only evidence on which one could base a history of emotional
experience is the work of art itself.”i Newton expresses the odd truth that the most precise way to interpret the emotion of early 2nd century Christians to late 18th century Catholics is through are, but the one who is looking for this understanding of emotion must first see the artwork from the emotions and thoughts expressed, not by it’s genre.
Putting art into the category of “Christian” or “Religious” is misleading. Yes the artist may have been Christian, yes the artwork may contain religious symbols or depictions, but what the artist is intending on doing is making you feel a specific way while also conveying an interpretation. The Creation Story in Genesis I gives us a look at what it is believed God likes. Because God “created humankind in his image,”ii and he “saw everything he had made and indeed it was very good,”iii this can only portray the belief that God himself finds joy in the beauty of the world as an expression of the beauty that is in Himself. Leaving one to interpret that God is an appreciator of art in it’s entirety.
Emperor Constantine actually plays a major role in art for the Catholic Church. Emperor Constantine was the head of the Byzantine Empire in 313AD when he officially approved Christianity be recognized.iv This was one of the most important events in the history of Christianity because before this, Christians were a group that met in secret to avoid persecution by gentiles for believing that Jesus was the messiah.
The Byzantine Empire controlled all the land around the Mediterranean Sea, a major point of travel and trade. This allowed for a bigger turnout of Jews converting to Christianity. The Byzantine style of art is described as a, “fusion of oriental decoration, Hellenistic naturalism with echoes of pagan subject matter, and Christian symbolism.”iMosaics would be painted along city walls, later on finding their way into churches. The pieces of work also served as advertisements for the Christian Church.
Built in the early 12th century, Abbey Church of St. Denis is the first Gothic-style Cathedral ever built.ii It represents the typical blueprint for Gothic architecture. The high windows, ceilings and arcs are all typical styles of gothic architecture in regards to the cathedrals that popped up throughout the late 12th century. In it stood “the Virgin of Jeanne d’Evreux”, a 68cm sculpture depicting the Virgin Mary holding baby Christ.
Aside from currently being held in the Louvre museum, the sculpture captures what is known even today as the fundamental image most Christians have in their mind. Although there hasn’t been a photograph of this event, Christians have images of Mary and Baby Jesus in their mind because of art in the church. As a place for learning, people go to church to do more than listen to the priest, but to let the art and architecture of the church effect them spiritually.
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