Saturday, August 03, 2013

In the History of Christian Art

Giovanni Antonio de Sacchis (Il Pordenone) (ca. 1484 - 1539)
9 x 12 metres
Cathedral, Cremona

In 1517 Martin Luther published the 95 Theses

In 1521 Pope Leo X excommunicated him

Meanwhile in 1520 in the medieval cathedral at Cremona (began 1107) work commenced on a series of fresco decorations

Pre-Baroque,  the Cathedral and its decoration give a glimpse of a way of life and thinking about Faith before the intense  ideological inter-Christian battles of faith fought over the succeeding centuries all over the Continent of Europe

In the Reformation, many reformers removed the decoration from all churches and cathedrals  in a new form of Iconoclasm

In differentiation Catholics introduced the Baroque. Further changes and developments followed. 

After the First World War, a new more austere and simple style took root. Pictorial art dimished and was minimised. The movement grew after the Second World War and developed apace after the Second Vatican Council

Some have asked for an introduction to the History of Christian Art

I can only recommend a very short erudite but highly interesting and readable book by Dr Beth Williamson entitled Christian Art: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: OUP, 2004)

Doctor Beth Williamson Senior Lecturer in  the University of Bristol is one of the most distinguished art historians in the present day

She has also taught  at the University of East Anglia, University College London and the Courtauld Institute

She has also written on the imagery of the Virgin Mary. See The Madonna of Humility Development, Dissemination and Reception, c.1340-1400

One does wish that when Bishops and other Catholic institutions invite lecturers to speak at talks she is always included in their invitations

One becomes tired of seeing the view expressed that in medieval churches (and the pre-reformation church) the frescoes were designed to teach the unlearned poor while they attended a Latin Mass with the priest speaking with his back to the congregation. The so called unlearned poor were apparently mired in superstition and only concerned with superficiality

The view of course betrays an ignorance of the medieval church and pre-Reformation church and society and a patronising attitude towards the people who lived in those times. It is a view borne out of pride and a blind adherence to the Theory of Progress

Here is her short and succinct account of the purposes of Christian art in amongst other things Churches. 

Perhaps the commissioners and architects of modern Churches would do well to take note:
"It is often said, in the context of Christian art, that images function as the ‘books of the illiterate’. The origin and context of this view is not so often articulated, however. The saying arises with Pope Gregory the Great (590–604), the pope who received the vision of the Man of Sorrows during the mass ... 
According to Gregory images could fulfil a useful purpose, not only in stimulating religious feelings, but also in conveying the important messages of the scriptures to those who could not read them.  
What exactly did ‘illiterate’ mean in this context?  
It used to be assumed that the ordinary lay population in the earlier medieval period was almost totally illiterate, and that only the most educated of clerics had a decent knowledge of Latin.  
However, more recent scholarship has discerned more subtle gradations and levels of literacy, from a reasonable reading knowledge of the local vernacular, through an ability to read and write in the vernacular only, through the ability to read Latin, right up to the elites who could not only read and understand Latin, but write elegantly in it as well.  
Some laypeople might have had a basic ability to understand some limited Latin, but might also have found pictures very helpful in reminding them, or guiding them, as to the meanings of the texts. ... 
Bede introduced a slightly different understanding of the effect of religious imagery when he remarked that pictures could ‘recall to the memory of the faithful’ events such as the Crucifixion, or other Christian miracles. 
This is an important distinction, as Bede appears to argue here that pictures can remind viewers of that which they already know, rather than teach them what they do not know, and what they cannot read in scripture.  
In other words, Bede’s understanding of religious imagery here (and that of several other later writers) is that such pictures fulfil a recollective rather than an instructive function. Theologians of later periods considered these different functions, and gradually a position was arrived at whereby the church sanctioned and encouraged the use of images both to instruct and to remind. 
St Bonaventure (1221–74), the Minister General of the Franciscan Order, established a tripartite defence of religious art: that images were made for the uneducated, who may, through the images, understand that which they cannot read in scripture; that devotion is more likely to be aroused in those who see images of the deeds of Christ than in those who merely hear about them; and that those deeds are more likely to be remembered if they are seen than if they are only heard.  
It is this sort of thinking that stimulated the development of images such as the Man of Sorrows, or the mass of St Gregory, discussed in Chapter 2, which rely for their efficacy on the viewer’s existing knowledge of the narrative context surrounding the image."

Pordenone and those who commissioned him did not have an audience of ignorant illiterates. the work was not intended for elites. It was for peoples of  sophistication and refined palette and of a depth of faith whoch we now can only envy

As well as this gem, the book contains many other gems which should be drummed into students in seminaries who attend History of Religious Art courses. And others more advanced.

Buy, beg, steal or  borrow this book.


  1. "One becomes tired of seeing the view expressed that in medieval churches the frescoes were designed to teach the unlearned poor....
    "The view of course betrays an ignorance of the medieval church and society and a patronising attitude towards the people who lived in those times."

    Indeed! It was hardly an illiterate congregation who gathered below the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel!
    I often enjoy your posts. Thanks, too, for the reference to the book- which I have ordered

  2. Thank you

    I know you will enjoy the book