Soul Searching: Have art historians de-Christianized sacred art?

As an art historian, I find it bizarre that some people are more inclined to believe that Leonardo da Vinci was a member of a secret sect than that he was a Christian artist. Or that Michelangelo put more faith in the Kabala than in his Catholicism. Or that Caravaggio drew more inspiration from his sexuality than from Christian themes of salvation. Yet these theories and others, concocted by authors with no training in the history of art, have persuaded millions that the art of sacred spaces was intended to proclaim anachronistic secular messages.

Where are the art historians in this discussion? Experts seem silent on questions they were trained to answer. Is it indifference or complicity that muzzles them? Or was a genetic defect present at the birth of this fascinating field of study that still weakens the discipline?


It Started With Vasari

The history of Western art claims descent from Giorgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, published in 1550, presented an enthralling series of biographies of Italian artists. In Lives he identified three historical periods, the last being Vasari’s own Golden Age of the early 16th century. As both a painter and a Florentine, Vasari recounted these lives in heroic literary form but with a particular eye to raising the status of the artist as well as of Florence.

While he was sensitive to great trends and stylistic similarities, Vasari wrote to fulfill the glory of his age, his country and his profession. But Vasari saw more deeply into the components that went into a good work of art than did many of his modern successors—and this included its spirituality. Vasari adored the art of antiquity and worshiped the human genius of Michelangelo, but his histories never shied away from the evident role that faith played in art.

In his Life of Fra Angelico, for example, Vasari notes, “a talent so extraordinary and so supreme as that of Fra Giovanni could not and should not descend on any save a man of most holy life…for it is seen that when such works are executed by persons who have little esteem for religion, they often arouse in men’s minds evil appetites and licentious desires whence comes the blame for the evil in their works, with praise for the art and the ability that they show.”

Vasari considered Michelangelo, whom he knew well, to be the embodiment of these qualities. He lauded Michelangelo not only as a genius in painting, sculpture and architecture but also as one endowed “with true moral philosophy and a sweet poetic spirit….” Rarely does one find Michelangelo praised in such terms in modern art history. According to Vasari, Michelangelo “delighted much in the sacred scriptures, like the good Christian he was…. Certainly he was sent into the world to be an example to men of art, that they should learn from his life and from his works.”

Vasari’s view of art dominated the 17th century, when artist-biographers and a few art lovers wrote either practical treatises on the production of art or biographical sketches that accepted an ideal of beauty.

A Turn Toward the Pagan

In the 18th century, art history began to delve into the ancient past. The German historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, in his History of the Art of Antiquity, took a formal and philological approach to art, laying the foundation of art history as we know it. Devoted to the newly illustrated, and therefore accessible, art of ancient Greece, Winckelmann’s studies exalted the art of classical Greece while downplaying the achievements of Rome and other civilizations. Winckelmann appropriated Vasari’s tripartite scheme but applied it to a new thesis of rise, zenith and decay as seen through ancient art. Pointing to the Apollo Belvedere of the Vatican Museums as the highest form of ancient art, Winckelmann wrote: “No veins or sinews heat and move this body, but rather a heavenly spirit….” Like Vasari, Winckelmann continued to embrace the transcendence of art.

Winckelmann’s approach offered a persuasive lens for the study of art. Great works could lift the human spirit, but this spirituality could be analyzed in the setting of pagan subject matter, which was devoid of religious doctrine. The major sea change would come when post-Enlightenment art historians had to confront transcendence in a Christian setting.

Winckelmann’s own conversion to Catholicism in 1750 was professionally motivated. Because of his desire to work in Rome and gain access to the papal collections, career trumped conviction. But he assured his Protestant colleagues that his conversion was only superficial, and he went on to profit from his new connections at the papal court. Before long, art historians began to project that sort of opportunism backward onto the Renaissance artists themselves. Winckelmann’s decision to subordinate his Protestant sentiments to obtain Catholic resources became a template for art historians’ understanding of Christian art.

The German historian sowed a second seed that would grow into an art-historical weed. Suggesting that great art grows where people are free, he exalted what he imagined to be the society of the Greek republics. A century later, that claim for freedom would be extended beyond the realm of the political; art would demand freedom from faith, from representation, from craft technique and from responsibility. “Art must be free,” the mantra that today justifies desecration of the sacred and thinly veiled pornography, is an unfortunate but logical grandchild of Winckelmann’s theory.

Negating the Sacred

The modern era of Renaissance art history opened with Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97). The son of a Swiss Calvinist minister, Burckhardt was studying theology at the University of Basel when he lost his faith. After receiving his degree in 1839, he turned his attention to history.

Just as Winckelmann was enamored with ancient Greece, Burckhardt loved the Italian Renaissance. Also like Winckelmann, Burckhardt projected his proclivities onto his science. He formulated several theories about the age that continued to divorce religious art from its sacred content. In his view, Renaissance art and the practices and teaching of the church could not co-exist.

Burckhardt furthered the popularization of art using the new medium of photography and wrote a guidebook, The Cicerone, to help travelers understand the art of Italy. “In the first decades of the 15th century,” Burckhardt wrote, “painting was filled with a new spirit: although it remained attached to the church, it began to develop around principles that have no contact with religious duties.” Burckhardt adopted a cynical tone, writing that for sacred art to be successful, “its religious content must have absolute dominion. And the reason is evident; that content is of an essentially negative character and consists in shunning all that refers to the profane world. On the other hand, if this is introduced in art with knowledge and as a principle—as indeed happened in the 15th century—the image loses its religious character.”

Burckhardt viewed the great achievements of Renaissance art as the result of the negation of the sacred content. He presented a highly subjective view of form without content and removed any transcendent dimension of art by firmly anchoring it to the merely transient. The temporal became the cornerstone of his science. As he wrote to a colleague in 1845: “The Pietists tried to stop me: they would have preferred a more edifying lecturer to this child of the world. So now they shall get it as worldly as possible…. The hair on their heads will stand up like quills.”

Unfortunately, Catholics did not rise to the defense of their culture. After the Enlightenment period, Catholics had grown suspicious of the art of Michelangelo and Raphael, believing that it was one of the factors that had brought about the Reformation.

Art Without Christianity

Some of Burckhardt’s weaknesses were shored up by his student and successor Heinrich Wofflin, who promoted a clinical formal analysis but left art bereft of content. From these highly subjective beginnings, the heads of art history multiplied Hydra-like, swallowing up the few brave souls who opposed them. A few art historians tried to draw attention to religious function and meaning, but their voices were drowned out by others, who had adopted Sigmund Freud’s new point of reference for art-historical reflection: the self. The artist’s own mood, conflicts and complexes became the focus of interpretation. At the dawn of the 20th century, it was assumed that the Renaissance artist had spent his time looking inward, not upward.

Even the pioneer of interdisciplinary art history, Aby Warburg (1866-1929), exhausted psychological sources of Renaissance imagery, prying into the occult, astrology and account books, while ignoring the more obvious sources in Christian tradition and spirituality.

Today the trend continues. Like Flannery O’Connor’s young preacher proclaiming the “church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified,” a motley parade of Marxist, feminist and deconstructionist art historians gives us the art of the Renaissance church without the Christianity that inspired and suffused it.

lives in Rome and teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and the Universi-ty of St. Thomas’s Catholic studies program. She has written for Inside the Vatican and First Things.

Listen to an interview with Elizabeth Lev.

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Dan Gheno
7 years 9 months ago
Lev is engaging in the same sort of absolutism she is accusing the other art historians of if she means to say with her article that the Renaissance artists were ONLY concerned with spirituality. Clearly an artist like Michelangelo is not just motivated by his spirituality, but also by his love of form, value, color and the tactile feeling of his materials. It’s obvious from his personal musings and those of his contemporaries that he was also fascinated by Greek and Roman art, classical philosophy and spent a lot of his time mulling over the sensuality of the human form. You can bet that most if not all Italian Renaissance artists approached their work with a similar balance between these formal concerns and their Catholic spirituality. One concern needn’t negate the other. Rather, in the hands of artists like Michelangelo they serve to reinforce each other.
Ann Engelhart
7 years 9 months ago

Mr. Gheno,

It doesn't seem at all clear to me that Elizabeth Lev is reducing the motives of Renaissance artists exclusively to spirituality, but rather is trying to provide balance to a contemporary tendency to eliminate it.

I see nothing in this refreshing article that contradicts your conclusions.

7 years 9 months ago
I am totally an amateur art critic, if a critic at all, and so I'm really uplifted by the question this article poses. Be it carvings or paintings, architecture or music my primary criterion for beauty is the divine inspiration I perceive in the artist's work or subject. It's lamentable that so many of our contemporary Catholic churches and buildings lack the real touch of human hands that have worked at the behest of God himself.
Christopher Kuczynski
7 years 9 months ago
Excellent article! The fact is, the most beautiful and enduring works of western art, among which I would include music and literature as well as painting and sculpture, if not explicitly created for the glory of God, have certainly been an expression of the artist's belief in God. Look around at much of what passes as "modern art" today. Its goal is self-expression; its style self-indulgent. Secular man is simply incapable of creating anything truly beautiful if he does not believe in the very source of that beauty.
Brian Thompson
7 years 9 months ago

For an equally refreshing took at major painters of the Italian Renaissance and their portrayal of selected saints, see Blessed and Beautiful: Picturing the Saints by Robert Kiely (Yale UP, 2010) He is not an art historian by trade but rather professor emeritus of English from Harvard.


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