Evaluation Of The Relevance Of Religion Today By Exploring The Mediums Of Art And Photography

For many years, religion has always been a major topic of discussion, whether that be within modern culture, or from its humble beginnings as early as second-century art. Within my essay, I intend to discover more about religion and the relevance it has in today's society — through the exploration of both artistic and photographic mediums.

The second-century saw the birth of Christian art, also known as Paleo-Christian art or primitive Christian art, which involves a mixture of architecture, sculpture, and painting from the beginning of Christianity, until the sixth-century — focusing particularly on Italian and Western Mediterranean art. Christian art can be identified as early as second-century wall and ceiling paintings, found in Roman underground burial chambers. These catacombs were decorated in a specific sketchy style, which originated from Roman impressionism through the fourth century. The Romans gained their inspiration from a number of subjects, including animals, still life, portraits, and mythological creatures. Impressionism artworks consisted of visibly thin brush strokes, open composition, and emphasis on the accurate depiction of light in its changing forms. Other features include very ordinary subject matter and unusual visual angles. Roman impressionism provided an extensive record of the development of Christian subject matter within the art world. Much of the early forms of Christian iconography tended to be symbolic, for example, an ordinary depiction of a fish was adequate to allude to Christ, bread and wine referred to the Eucharist (Holy Communion), and early figural illustrations of Christ most often show him as 'the Good Shepherd' by directly adopting from the classic ideal.

Narrative structures tended to be typological, referencing parallels between the Old and New Testaments — mainly portraying Christ's miracles. Imagery, such as the Crucifixion, Nativity, and Resurrection of Christ was avoided until Christianity became well established. This was mainly due to Christianity being identified as a mystery religion. Painters and sculptors were commissioned by Popes, religious and secular officials to illuminate a range of scenes from the Bible, which were determined by religious diplomacies. Whilst not directly representing these Christian concepts, the themes of death and resurrection were enacted through paintings, which were derived from the Old Testament. All these could be seen to metaphorically imply the principal narratives of Christ's life. Origins of Christian art date to a period in time when religion was a quiet, persecuted sect. It was only after 313, when the Christian emperor Constantine the Great decreed toleration of Christianity, that the religion began to flourish. The art during this period had its roots in ancient Roman style but soon evolved into a more abstract, simplified artistic interpretation. Its model was not identified by physical beauty but spiritual feeling. Human characters became types rather than individuals. Symbols were frequently used, with compositions being flat and hieratic, which allowed the artist to concentrate and visualise the main doctrine.

During the 18th century, a new era emerged highlighting tyrannical monarchs, whose reign was appointed by God, and based on the 'Divine Right of Kings'. These monarchs, such as Louis XIV, the Russian Romanovs, and the Austrian Habsburgs, were concerned only with magnifying their secular status and developing their failing empires, in order to invest money in religious painting, sculpture, and architecture. In addition to this, the power of the Roman Catholic Church had been severely damaged by the destruction of its monasteries during the preceding two centuries. This devastating combination of secular and spiritual vulnerability meant that during the 18th century there was a significant reduction in the cost of religious art. There was also a massive increase in the demand for portraiture and topographical landscapes from merchants and landowners during this time, which also hindered the value placed on Religious art. The 18th century ended with the French Revolution, which declared a shift in attitude across Europe. Art would now celebrate people, rather than deities. Even less religious art was produced during the 19th century. Due to the success of the Industrial Revolution, significant growth in financial status for nations and individuals was obtained — this was not invested in Christian art. Rather it went towards the development of social and public co-operation. Whilst a few painters continued to portray Biblical aspects within their work, the demand for spiritual artworks decreased.

However, it is not just religious art which has seen a decline during the past few centuries, Christianity as a whole has seen a decrease. Despite Ireland remaining a predominantly Christian nation, there has been a rapid decline in the number of residents who profess to be Christian. According to the 2016 Census by the Central Statistics Office, there was a significant decline in the rate of those who adhere to the Catholic faith and other Christian denominations. Catholics who obtained up to 84. 2 percent of Ireland's population, now only make up 78. 3 percent. On the other hand, those who identify themselves as having no religion saw an increase to 73. 6 percent throughout the past five years. In Ireland alone, Christianity has taken a massive blow, so that leaves the question, does Christianity still have any relevance both within the photographic medium and today's society?

Traditional artistic mediums, such as sculpture and painting, were often the only means for representing religious narratives — providing form, meaning, and validity to faith in Christ. Modern photography has otherwise turned this devout worship into something very different — carrying on tradition — but also discovering a world of exploration, mockery, and iconoclasm. Which raises opinions on what the definition of religion is. Subversion of imagery frequently takes place by employing spiritual clichés to create alarming artworks. Despite their opposing link, religion and photography are intertwined. Photography, as the ultimate form of modernity, accelerates religion's process of figuration. Therefore, religious figuration stimulates successful photography — even when it offends those who view such artworks. Many photographers who use or imply divine imagery strive to unearth the subconscious with photography, looking into the viewer's spiritual past to reconstruct their visual representation of faith. Despite some photographer's vague knowledge of the sublime, and secular approach to photography, they still have uncertainties about God's nonexistence.

There has been no other artist, who has caused as much dispute as Andres Serrano. His work, known as 'Piss Christ', was an extremely controversial piece when it was created in 1978. His questionable work was a Cibachrome, which revealed a plastic crucifix submerged in his own urine. When it was released, Christian fundamentalists were outraged by the work, which had been vandalised several times, and provoked United States Senators at the time, D'Amato and Jesse Helms to attack Serrano in Congress for accepting funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). As Serrano was raised a dedicated Catholic, his photography emerged from his religious subconscious, spanning back to when he was younger — stating that by using body fluids to consecrate his work, he aimed to showcase his internal artistic expression. When talking about the controversy of the piece, Serrano declares “You cannot have the sacred without the profane, just as you can’t have good without evil. The paradox of the beautiful and the grotesque in religion is that not everyone sees the same thing. ”

For Serrano, his work is not an onslaught on religion but rather a way to develop meaning from his religious past, and an effort to understand the humanity of Christ. Following on from this Serrano said, “Jesus was a man who was made of the same organs and bodily functions as any other man. He was tortured and crucified and died in His own fluids. If the idea of a photograph called Piss Christ is disturbing, imagine what His crucifixion was like. ” From an artistic standpoint, Serrano was exploring something deeper than what many critics thought when they saw the piece. However, I do feel that there are better ways in which to showcase artwork, whilst examining your personal internal mindset in search of answers.

A notably less controversial, but much more subtle piece of religious art, is Ron Mueck's 'Youth' (2009). Mueck is known for his hyperrealistic sculptures, detailing human characters completing a range of tasks and actions. Within this work, Mueck worked with multiple undertones, such as race, religion, and identity to create a sculpture of a young black boy — who is staring at a stab wound in his side, mirroring the likeness of Jesus Christ, as He showed his wounds to the disciples. At 65 cm, the sculpture is small in stature but makes a massive impact on those who have been able to witness it. Viewers have the opportunity to create their own meaning behind the work and can choose to interpret it, in whatever way they want. Despite the sculpture having some form of familiarity to it, the audience may still choose to associate the piece with gang violence, and never draw comparisons between the artwork and religion. I am attracted to the work based solely on its subtly — it shows that religion can co-exist in a more indirect way. Not all religious artwork has to include religious imagery or Biblical characters to make an impact, it can be just as effective to reference religion in a smaller context.

After completing my research on this topic, I can conclude that Christianity will always have a place in the photographic medium. Whether that be through controversial artworks or more subtle photographic practices — allowing those who see the work to explore their subconscious thoughts about the relevancy of Christianity in both their own lives and photographic medium.

31 October 2020
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