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I intend to explore a part of mankind’s special relationship with religion, some of the magnificent art that has been created in the name of God. I will try to cover the world’s major religions and their art, as well as the influences on each. Please note, and this is very important, this page in no way advocates or promotes any religion and there will be no analysis, judgment or anything else that in any way claims the superiority or inferiority of any religion, philosophy, moral values, cultural traditions or way of life. I am neither an art historian nor a theologian and any errors of fact or interpretation remain my responsibility.
Art has had an important role in all of the world’s religions, which have often been major patrons of the arts. The Prophet Mohammad, for example, is known to have said that “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” This encouraged not only appreciation of art as beauty, but also the production of such beauty. It can be found in a wide variety of arts: painting, sculpture, architecture and many others. Though Christianity and Islam, for example, have created architectural masterpieces in the form of splendorous mosques and cathedrals, the arts they emphasize are very different. Christianity tends to emphasize painting and sculpture whereas Islam tends to excel in calligraphy, design and decorative arts. These are truly some of the treasures of human civilization.
Religion has used art in its many forms to create images of their deities, images which take on a form that the ordinary person can understand. One question has to be, realistically, “how much freedom of artistic expression existed when portraying religious subjects?” When artists were working directly for the Church or religious institution or a monarch, that right was quite limited. In Egypt, for example, there was a very rigid set of rules imposed by the priests as to how monarchs or deities could be portrayed. These restrictions were often determined the portrayal of people even when there was no religious motif. For many religions these restrictions were intended to protect against the development of images that could be worshipped in their own right. Thus, when Christians pray in front of a cross they are not praying to the cross itself, but rather to the deity represented by the cross. However, some traditions, the Greek and Russian Orthodox, for example, believe that the icon itself is invested with supernatural power. There is some controversy over this. The fear of idol worship was known to be an important concern in Islam and Judaism. The religions of the ancient world were criticized for being little more than “idol worship”, after all, they portrayed their deities as part human and part animal.
When an artist is free to create their own work and determine its content, one has to wonder how far they can go in portraying their personal vision. A good example is Dali’s Crucifixion, which created a furor in his native Spain and throughout the art world. One might also imagine an implicit restriction on art that might somehow portray a deity or religious icon in a less “holy” way, a way less worthy of worship.
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