Art, religion and meaning

Ecclesall PianoLast night’s piano recital in a Sheffield church highlighted once again the permeable boundaries between art and religion. The performance—which was captivating—was unobtrusively supported by small rituals designed to separate this experience from everyday life and so to help those present to focus their minds on what it offered.

Art uses many rituals, but they often draw on formality, designated space, stillness and silence, lighting and so on. Designed to create atmosphere, an intangible and unspoken difference, they are similar in form or effect to those deployed in churches, mosques and Buddhist temples.* All art practices use them, though how noticeable or familiar they are varies; we also respond to them differently according to our own ideas and experience.

Those familiar in classical concerts are most obviously close to religious rituals, perhaps because sacred music has been such an important tributary of the Western canon, but also, perhaps, because of the art form’s nature. The Christian church, like all religions, has valued art’s ability to communicate things that cannot be put into words and so it has been a great patron of artists, including many of the greatest composers.


The secular, sometimes anti-religious culture that currently dominates in Western Europe can be very uncomfortable with the religious character of much of its own artistic heritage. And yet, perhaps because it feels the void created by its own loss of faith, it makes a great fuss of art and culture as a carrier of non-materialist values. One way of squaring that circle is to disconnect sacred art from its original purpose, so that it is now more common to hear a Passion or a Requiem in a concert hall than a cathedral. What Bach would have made of it, no one can say.

Hugues de Varine, museum innovator and old friend, has written an excellent post about this disconnect, taking as an example the Last Judgement of Roger van der Weyden.


This was originally the altar piece of the chapel in the Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune, where the sick and dying were cared for in the 15th century. Its purpose was entirely spiritual, the key element in a performance ritual where prayer for the immortal soul was as important as the relief of transient physical suffering.

Beaune_hospice_lits_ass_2Six hundred years later, the painting itself seems unchanged, but everything about it is different. Still on the same site, it has been moved to a museum context, where it can be admired in all its extraordinary detail as an art object. For many visitors its religious significance is equivalent to a statue of Apollo. Indeed, it is may be that few visitors today can interpret the symbolism at all, without museological assistance.

van der Weyden

What, then, is its meaning? What is its value or purpose? Answers below, please…

* They are also used in commercial spaces, from shops to resturants, but that is another story.


  1. Writing as an arts/dance researcher with special concern for ‘aesthetic knowing’ and ‘spiritual knowing’ and the creative process involved in both art and religion, while I don’t want to suggest that ‘aesthetic knowing’ is analogous to ‘spiritual’ knowing’, with such writers as Boutet (2007) ‘Epistemic Companions – Art and the Sacred’ … I do want to suggest that ‘aesthetic knowing’ and ‘spiritual knowing’ are in significant ways intimately connected and might serve as a basis, or better yet, an avenue of religious consciousness’. With the gradual decline in formal religion and its seeming inability or unwillingness to meet the new age and be adequate vehicles for the spiritual [religious] the arts take on an increasing urgency and significance.

    Today we think of the arts in terms of entertainment and recreation with little significance other than providing ephemeral and escapist pleasure one driven in the main by economics and politics rather than the intrinsic and essential nature of the arts themselves. With such writers a Abbs, P. (1996) I see that arts – dance music and drama in particular – as indispensable vehicles for the development of human consciousness: both knowing and being-in-the-world; at their most profound and typical they are formally heuristic rather than hedonistic’, and far from escaping life, ‘have away drawing us into life, allowing us to participate more deeply in the basic stuff and process of life’ Westerhorff (1981).

    The relationship between the arts and religion as Pope John Paul (1999) wrote in his ‘letter to artists’ is one that has always existed; ‘dictated merely by historic accident or need but one rooted in the very essence of both’.

  2. Thanks for such interesting insights and connections. I suppose (and this is not an original thought) that the reinvention of art during the European Enlightenment was both enabled and necessitated by its questioning and in many cases rejecting of religion as a way of ‘knowing and being-in-the-world’. I agree that much art today is bad, in the sense of being cynical, manipulative and false: examples exist in all domains of practice, commercial, professional and amateur. But I also believe that the search through art for transcendence and non-material value, which is part of Kant’s influence on how we think about art today, remains both in critical discourse and in how many people think about their own artistic lives, whether as producers or consumers.

  3. I’m glad you referenced Van Der Weyden as, for me, the greatest painting I’ve ever stood in front of is his Deposition in the Prado. I had a Christian upbringing (rejected in my teens) and a training as an art historian, so I have no difficulty in ‘reading’ the painting. But for me its greatness resides in three things: its superlative formal structure, its astonishing technical ability, and above all its overwhelming empathy for human grief and pain. I could describe my reactions to, say, the St Matthew Passion, in exactly the same terms, without need for any reference to a spiritual or religious dimension. I dislike many of the rituals associated with classical music (eg the wearing of outmoded suits for the men), but would defend all those which aid concentration on the music: silence, no applause between movements, and the minimum of speech from the peformers or conductor! In the same way I support Kermode and Mayo’s Wittertainment Code of Conduct for cinema-going, which can lead to a certain Zen-like quality (eg it’s wrong to use your mobile phone in a cinema even if you’re the only person in the sudience!) but otherwise have no ritual or spiritual component. I enjoy occasional visits to choral evensong, when I’m in an English Cathedral city, but rather in the same way that many people enjoy the repetitive ritual of the Shipping Forecast!

  4. Thinking further about this, it can be too easy to assume that an artist shares the convictions of his patron/client. The vast bulk of the music which Bach wrote, compiled, and published for his own satisfaction, was secular: the Art of Fugue, the Well-tempered klavier, the Clavierubung. Even the B Minor Mass was unperformable in any liturgical context of his day. To take a very different example, if we only knew Fritz Lang’s Hollywood films, we’d think he was driven to make dark, despairing films noirs. We’d have no idea that what he really wanted to do was make epics like the visually sumptuous Nibelungen, and Metropolis, something he went back to when he had the chance after the war, with his final Indian epic. There’s also that old point that the last place to go for a view on water is a fish. In Van der Weyden’s world, religion was the ocean in which everyone in Christendom swam. How else would you use your artistic skills? And yet at this very time portraiture begins to emerge, and increasingly religious themes, such as the Annunciation, are set in detailed contemporary interiors, with glimpses of town- and landscapes out the windows.

    1. Thanks for both these contributions, Robert: they’ve certainly got me thinking further. Underlying this are questions about how meaning (sense) in art is constructed. I think it is made by the conscious and unconscious work of the creator and remade by the conscious and unconscious work of the re-creator (listener, viewer, reader etc.). As Alberto Manguel writes (and I often quote him on this):

      ‘It is the reader who reads the sense; it is the reader who grants or recognises in an object, place or event a certain possible readability; it is the reader who must attribute meaning to a system of signs, and then decipher it.’

      Your account of how your respond to religious art, as someone with a Christian upbringing but no longer sharing its beliefs, shows just that process at work. In my view, we often grant too much authority to the artist and not enough to the person who responds to their work. In reality each artistic experience is unique, because it connects two unique minds. But we tend to speak and write as if what the artist intended was all that mattered.

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