Religious Art

Heather, I’ll admit to being a fan of quite a lot of religious art from the masterpieces of the (early) Renaissance to the blood, bile and hellfire of some of the Flemish to,  for that matter,  the radiant gloom of so many Russian icons,  so perhaps I’m biased.  Nevertheless,  I’m not sure that you can write ‘religious art’ out of the picture (so to speak) as quickly as you suggest.  As a proportion of the art being produced,  it certainly declined,  for some of the reasons cited by you and your commenters (commentators?)  and others besides. These include shifts in taste, the rise of Protestantism, relaxed religious controls, the fact that there was already so much religious art around, and so on.  At the same time (and if we’re talking about Europe), it continued to survive and flourish both in the Orthodox East and, also most notably, Victorian England.  Some of the work produced in the latter may come across as doggerel when compared with the high poetry of Caspar David Friedrich (a painter to whom I think you implicitly refer in your post), but it was religious nonetheless – and an important part of the backdrop to one of the most prosperous and, eventually,  law-abiding eras in British history.

If we move on into the twentieth century, we see that religious art continues to flourish (as it always will, given human nature),  most strikingly in the service of the political religions of National Socialism and early-to-mid period Soviet communism (both of which cults, but particularly the latter,  made extensive use of devotional imagery),  a process that rapidly spread beyond Europe,  notably into the China of the Cultural Revolution. Efforts there to transform the Great Helsman into a living god (zaosheng yundong) may have reached a peak in Liu Chunhua’s rather fine 1969 depiction of a Christ-Mao visting Anyuan.  Nine hundred million copies are thought to have been made of this work, and if it’s not to be considered religious,  I don’t know what is…

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