Art and the Church

I found myself scrolling through YouTube last week and watched a video from Intelligence Squared of a debate from a decade ago where the motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a force of good in the world’. Opposing this notion was Stephen Fry and the late Christopher Hitchens. Both Fry and Hitchens pointed out the need for modernisation of the church of which there have been some great strides taken under Pope Francis, yet there is still work to do. Hitchens was keen to point out the historic shortcomings of the church, an area which could take years to go into detail about, however, there was very little consideration for the historic successes of the church and how it has indeed progressed Western civilisation.

The Church is evidently a contentious area with many feeling very strongly that it is not and has never been a force for good and others feeling the exact opposite. I find myself somewhat stuck in the middle, the Church in my opinion has been extremely oppressive over the past 1,600 years to women and homosexuals and in many ways has taken away the liberty of many of those within the Church. But equally, the Church has given the world some of the most important aspects of western life, such as literature, art, and philosophy. The area that I am keen to emphasise here is its role in allowing art the flourish during the Renaissance period. There is no doubt in my mind that without the Church, we would not have some of the most stunning works of art.

The Renaissance has been described by Thomas E. Woods as the ‘greatest outburst in innovation and sheer accomplishment in the world of art since antiquity’. This is a claim that it is hard to disagree with. For centuries up until the 12th century a period of iconoclasm in which images of god and saints were censored, destroyed thousands of works of art that would be of such beauty that they would still be relished today. This iconoclasm was not the work of the Catholic Church, but by the Eastern Church in the Byzantine Empire. In the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul the attempts to remove images, paintings and statues of Christ can still be seen. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in the west was continuously looking to break from the Middle Ages, which they managed to do so with artistic innovations prior to the Renaissance period.

The reason for why the Church was so important for Renaissance art is rather compelling. The vast majority of Renaissance artwork was created by men with such profound faith, so much so that it influenced their artwork which can be seen in the depictions of religious themes. One need only look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ for proof. The Church and religion were not only the cause of inspiration but the cause for painting. The Church was probably the only establishment which could commission and fund the creation of artwork on such a mass scale. Of course you hear about individual commissions such as the Medici’s commission of Botticelli but we must keep in mind that the Medici bank was probably the richest financial establishment that the world had seen by that point, and still, it could not compete with the Church in funding artwork.

It was under Julius II and Leo X that the most extreme modernisation of the Church to that time occurred. These popes could so easily have rejected artwork that reverted in many ways back to classical sculpture and artwork with an emphasis on nudity, as seen in Michelangelo’s David. The Church began to allow and no longer censor the human form which for so long had been almost banished from life. It was not just allowed, but encouraged by Julius II and Leo X. There had not been such extreme changes to art, literature, or scholarship in Europe since Periclean Athens or Augustan Rome, and the Church was instrumental in this advancement.

I strongly believe that the greatest gift that the Church has given the world is possibly the most stunning works of art that it commissioned, inspired, and most importantly allowed by changing its image. However, I not for one moment will make it seem like the Renaissance period was all bright and sunny and that it was a period where the Church became the most progressive force. Despite the progress in the arts, the period was still one of typical irrationalism. Witch hunts were far more common in the 15th and 16th century than they had been throughout the whole of the Middle Ages despite being viewed as a Medieval phenomenon. Also, according to Woods, the period was one of stagnation for almost all areas other than art. So, to say that this period was one where the Church was entirely a force for good in the world would not be entirely truthful. However, there was undoubtedly some good that came out of the Catholic Church.

The Renaissance is possibly one of the most important period in history and the artwork that was produced by the likes of Donatello, Raphael and their contemporaries owed large thanks to the Catholic Church. The Church has been a large force for good in the artistic world, as for other areas, the debates will continue.

By T Nurcombe

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