Many people show a worrying tendency to essentialise the past, to treat certain actions, characteristics and traditions as fundamental to groups of the present; it is as though an unbroken chain stretches through history and cultures forever unchanging and permanent.Though modern humans may speak a similar language, live in the same places or believe in the same god as their forebears, it is a mistake to feel a sense of connection or similarity beyond the basic human experience (which even then is spurious without a psychological time machine). Our ancestors lived in an alien world and their outlook would be foreign to us. They weren’t less advanced or less intelligent, they were humans responding to a wholly different experience and we must afford them with the same respect we give to contemporary foreigners.
Our human history belongs to no nation, but the past, and we have no right to claim it. The fantasy of nationalism treats the past as property with exclusive ownership rights. Most national heroes would struggle to speak our forms of their language, let alone identify with modern identities – few European states are even 200 years old, after all. We have no more rights to the past than the property of any strangers. Art, architecture, ideas and institutions may survive into our age but these objects live in our world and not the context they were created in.
Religion is no different. Religion creates and feeds off tradition, it self-sustains on the notion of its being fundamental, eternal and inviolable. By its fundamental nature, religion takes ownership of the past, claiming to practice the teachings of historical figures such as Jesus and Mohammed. Yet, as the world has changed, so has religion. Conceiving of a world where everyone’s lives were dictated by the basic principle that there was a god and an afterlife is near impossible. We simply cannot understand what that life would be like, what religion would mean for these people. With each generation, regardless how conservative some believers are, religion is experienced through a different lens. A stylite and a Mormon would find each other’s Christianity incomprehensible and incompatible; they are essentially different religions with the same dramatis personae.
Therefore, I do not think religious art belongs to modern believers. I am not promoting iconoclasm or loudly antagonising Christians next time you visit a church. There’s no need to be disrespectful, especially when visiting someone’s place of worship as a tourist. However, ‘sacred’ objects are only intrinsically sacred to believers and the right of non-believers to not treat them as sacrosanct must be regarded as equally valid.
We treat statues of ancient gods and their temples as objets d’art, as products of their historical time and place. No one believes in Olympians nowadays, but we appreciate classical statues for their aesthetic value and the emotions they elicit. There are no Christians in the 15th century sense anymore and we can appreciate Botticelli’s mythical ‘Birth of Venus’ for its beauty and artistry, so why should we treat his religious paintings differently? Other than being beautiful depictions of sacred moments, the allusions and symbolism of these paintings are largely irrelevant in contemporary contexts. In treating these works as expressions of modern faith, we lose much of their intended meaning.
The great patrons of the renaissance and baroque, particularly the Borgia popes, were no saints themselves. Though the subjects were religious for clerical patrons, these men were not paragons of virtue, even by the standards of their time. These works were not always inherently holy themselves, commissioned by murderers, adulterers and thieves and depicting some religious scenes such as Susanna and the Elders for the patron’s pervy pleasure.
Religious art can still be incredibly powerful to secular viewers. Caravaggio’s paintings particularly resonate with me. He found his models for religious figures off the streets of Rome, endowing his work with profound human emotion that we can recognise and empathise with. As an agnostic, sometime atheist, I can still relate deeply to the experience of these characters. In fact, appreciating them as expressions of humanity rather than revered apostles brings me closer to the art, the artist and the people of that distant country called the past.
Religion reflects our societies’ values. Saintly legends reflect what our ancestors view as miraculous and admirable. Religious images such as the ‘Virgin of Guadalupe’ or Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ have far exceeded their religious significance, becoming emblems of humanity and human civilisation. Religion and religious art are part of our collective human heritage, not just the heritage of those who believe. If this art belongs to anyone, it belongs to all of us and we can appreciate it however we choose.
With thanks to Aran Prince-Tappé for the conversation that prompted the direction of this piece and who writes so eloquently on how our past affects our present.
[Ruaraidh Campbell- he/ him ]
[Image Credit: tom balabaud]