Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Context of Belief

From The Catholic Herald:
Is something lost when a painting is removed from a church or a private chapel? Can you still have a profound, prayerful, religious experience even in a crowded gallery? “Oh, I don’t have the slightest doubt that it’s possible,” says Finaldi. “I do think, though, that much has been lost.” Many of the paintings in the Sainsbury Wing, for example, “come from a church environment, or, anyway, a devotional or faith context of some sort. A place where people would have looked upon these images as if looking on the divine. They would have looked on a painting of the Virgin Mary and appealed to her for their sick family members and asked for her graces to be given.

“So the context is lost, not just the physical context, but over time the belief context has become much, much weaker. To the point where people often don’t know what they are seeing in some of these pictures.”

This is partly a problem of education. The school syllabus is ever more secular. Children are not taught Bible stories, hymns, and saints and their attributes. How do you bring on a new generation of art historians – of art lovers and gallery-goers for that matter – if they cannot tell Delilah by her shears and St Anthony the Great by his pig?

“It is worrying,” says Finaldi. “Not just because these are Christian references that are not being understood or picked up. It’s about the cultural environment in which a generation emerges. There is a rich visual language tradition, a rich symbolic language in literature, which we find increasingly difficult to understand if we are not attuned to allegory, if we are not familiar with the great themes of classical antiquity and the Bible. If we are not aware of the background, then our experience is impoverished.”

The myths of antiquity are as essential as the Bible to our understanding of Milton, Shakespeare, Titian, Veronese and Botticelli. We need to know Ovid, Homer, the Old and New Testaments. “Whether it is Noah or David and Goliath: these are stories that are embedded in our psyche and in our culture,” Finaldi says. “To know the sources is always an enriching experience. It’s not about being clever. It’s not about declaring a position with regard to religion. It’s about understanding the roots of our own culture, how we got to where we are.” (Read more.)

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