What Think Ye of Christ? An Art Historian’s Perspective

In discussions of contemporary religious art, one of the problems that can occur involves couching the issue only in the present and recent past. For example, I am skeptical of Noel Carmack’s idea that realism in religious art is a late nineteenth-century phenomenon chosen to reinforce a literal view of scriptures. By ignoring the broad context of Western religious art, Carmack misses the centuries of a realistic tradition beginning with the vast corpus of the entire Renaissance, especially the northern German Renaissance and the Flemish Renaissance (much less the Baroque). Rubens (1577-1640) and Poussin (1594-1665) paid keen attention to a body’s underlying muscular structure. In a Dürer (1471-1528) painting, you can determine the specific kind of grass he depicts, and you can ascertain which kind of fir tree a figure is leaning against.

While there has been some mysticism in religious art, the vast sweep of religious art in Western civilization for five hundred years has not been particularly mystical. Thus during that time, most images of Christ have been quite realistic. For mysticism, you would have to look at the Byzantine period, which begins almost a thousand years before the Renaissance, or at the twentieth century, when nonrealistic religious art became more pervasive than at earlier times. So the idea of highly realistic art is neither a modern nor a nineteenth-century creation.

Published in BYU Studies Quarterly 39:3
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