Where’d all the religious art go, and who misses it?

While in Boston this weekend for the opening night performance of L’Incoronazione di Poppea at the Boston Early Music Festival (an elegant, historically sensitive production, created, like all of BEMF’s work, in conscious rejection of the ignorant narcissism of Regietheater) I went to the Titian-Tintoretto-Veronese exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts.  Off the top of my head, I can think of no greater marker of the secularization of the West than the near disappearance of religious art over the last two centuries.  I would love to see a graph showing the ratio of religious to non-religious art since the 11th century.  Eighteenth century Baroque painters like Tiepelo were obviously still creating Christian canvases, but even those were a  small proportion of their own and of  total artistic output compared to four centuries previously.  By the mid-19th century,  I can conjure up few major religious works—perhaps a Millet here and there, and some kitschy Beaux-Arts saints.  But in general, artists’ attentions and those of their patrons were caught up in the things of this world—history, portraits, landscapes (however occasionally infused with divine light), urban street scenes, peasant labor, domestic arrangements, factories, and still lifes.  Churches were more often objects of paintings rather than the source of their content.   A chronological stroll through any art museum demonstrates this trend.

All I can say is: Phew!  I wonder whether even the religious grow occasionally weary at the pierced, flayed, and bleeding bodies, the bloodless faces, the upturned eyes, the naked babies with the oddly elongated limbs.  (The MFA show contained a Veronese thought to show Christ healing a beautiful blonde who had been constantly bleeding (we are not told from where); she touches his garment and is cured.   Do our peers find such episodes credible?) 

Now perhaps the drying up of religious art says nothing about the course of human preoccupations; maybe there was just no more space needing to be filled.  The great eras of Renaissance and Baroque church building obviously ended, and fortunately, no one thought of upgrading a church’s altarpieces and frescoes with the latest Wunderkind’s work.  But churches were not the only patrons of religious art up through the Baroque era.  Noble families built their own private chapels, and for centuries wealthy bourgeoisie wanted their own devotional paintings showing them worshiping a saint or the Holy Family.  But by the 19th century, these religious themes disappeared, leaving only the patron himself.  

(Religious music, on the other hand, continues to be produced at a higher rate than religious iconography.  I am not aware of even Popes commissioning much religious art anymore.  Perhaps they’ve gotten a little self-conscious about the conspicuous consumption that was once the glory of Rome.) 

What has been the fall-out of this epochal shift of attention?  A highly prosperous, stable, law-abiding society.

Some other observations occasioned by the exhibit (for the record, I have little fondness for Tintoretto, his human forms sometimes border on mannerist, in my view, and his palette is too muddy for my taste.  The only two self-portraits in the MFA show are by Tintoretto, however, one at the beginning and one at the end of his life, and they are rivetting.  His eyes burn with a terrible intensity): 
–Frontal male nudes are far rarer in painting than in sculpture, it seems to me.  I’m not sure why that might be. 
–While I detest feminist art criticism,  there is simply no denying the male gaze in art.  Even the popes hung huge fleshly nudes.  I’m not complaining, it’s just the way it is. 
–One artistic taboo seems to never have been breached: I can think of no copulating couples in Western art (and the Asian versions are clearly intended for use.)  There are plenty of images of women being carted away for rape, or symbolic images of rape—Tarquin and Lucretia—and symbolic images of copulation—in this exhibit, Danae being showered by a monetized Zeus—but none of the act itself.   A good thing, in my view.

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