Art as Spiritual Perception: Witness to a "Religious Turn?"
Art always conveys spiritual meaning and thus calls for a viewer's response. This book invites us—and an entire discipline—to do just that.
Art as Spiritual Perception: Essays in Honor of Dr. E. John Walford edited by Dr. James Romaine, foreword by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker. Crossway, 2011. 288 pp.
Given the religious inspiration behind so much of western art, it is strange that the spiritual perspectives implied by and conveyed through works of art was typically ignored in the discipline of art history since its origins in WÃ¶lfflin and Riegl in the nineteenth century. While the "New Art History" of the late 1980s has moved the discipline well beyond its traditional preoccupations with form, style, and genre into the areas of politics, economics, and gender, it was, until recently, conspicuously silent about the role of religion in the production and reception of art. Yet, as we are currently witnessing across many disciplines, what was once considered a taboo subject is now given pride of place: religion is back on the academic agenda, including that of art history.
My question is: does Art as Spiritual Perception, addressing the role of religiously rooted worldviews in the production and reception of art, bear witness to this "turn?" A rich collection of fifteen first-rate essays, the book is a fitting tribute to art historian E. J. Walford, a specialist on seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting who taught art history at Wheaton from 1981 until his retirement in 2011.
Unlike many other Festschrifts, Art as Spiritual Perception displays a remarkable coherence. This is not least because all contributors discuss a work of art that is also featured in Walford's path-breaking textbook Great Themes in Art, elaborating, nuancing, or critically engaging with Walford's own take on those works. This makes the book not only a great companion piece to Great Themes but also a living testimony to Walford's important legacy: to put religious beliefs and "spiritual perceptions" on the art historical map.
Although Walford did his doctoral studies in Cambridge, prior to that he spent seven years (1969-1976) at the Free University of Amsterdam studying with the art historian Hans Rookmaaker. These years proved to have a lasting effect on him as a Christian scholar. As it happens, my own first two years at "The Free"—studying philosophy and art history—overlapped with Walford's last two. Even so, there was at that time relatively little communication between the Dutch students and those who came from abroad, drawn by Rookmaaker's reputation as a Christian art historian with close connections to Francis Schaeffer and L'Abri. There is no little irony in the fact that, at the same time as foreign, mainly North American, students were drawn to the Free University specifically for its tradition of Christian education, many Dutch students from Calvinist backgrounds were starting to react against their roots which they experienced as restrictive and confining. Some of them joined up with others in extra-curricular readings of works from social art historians such as Nicos Hadjinicolaou whose Art History and Class Struggle had then just come out. The clash of cultures between those wanting to learn about art's social conditions and those interested in its spiritual roots sadly precluded much fruitful discussion and communication. Be that as it may, Rookmaaker's daughter, Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, reports in her Foreword:
John and the other foreign students who came to study with him definitely were a special gift to my father, especially since the overall climate at the Free University was quite antagonistic to Christianity. I saw how excited my father became when he was among these students and how proud he was when "they started asking all the right questions."
On Walford's own account, his studies with Rookmaaker were deeply formative. He refers to his time at the Free University as years that "reshaped my sense of self, my relationship to God, to others, my view of nature and the dynamics of society" calling Rookmaaker "the most significant man in my life." As he says in a recent article,
[Rookmaaker] had taught me to see and respond to the world from a totally fresh perspective, one informed not so much by my British, secular, and upper-class education, but one informed by Scripture, as filtered through the Dutch Reformed tradition.
In his introductory essay, James Romaine, a former student of Walford who describes himself as "Rookmaaker's vocational grandson," explains what this fresh perspective entailed: an affirmation of the natural world as "God's second book of revelation," there for all to see. This insight implied that perception itself was not a neutral activity but one deeply shaped by religious convictions and beliefs. Applied to art, it meant that, as Walford put it,
A painted landscape, however realistic in appearance, is never a pure copy of nature and therefore can never be rendered value free. Implied in the artist's choice of motifs and his pictorial representation is a certain view of reality.
In order to discover what view of reality any artist might hold, Walford, in Great Themes, formulated two questions: "How do artists express spiritual aspirations, religious beliefs, and concerns about humanity's place in the universe?" and "How have artistic responses to this powerful dimension of human life changed over time?"
There is little doubt that the formulation of these two questions echoes Rookmaaker's project in his inflential Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. In this book, Rookmaaker shows how religious convictions and worldviews impacted the entire history of Western art. Rookmaaker himself, in turn, had admired and was inspired by the influential German neo-Kantian art historian Erwin Panofsky. Panofsky introduced a distinction between "iconography"—the identification of images and motifs with their conventional meaning (such as a lily for purity)—and "iconology"—the discovery and interpretation of their deeper philosophical or theological meaning. In Hegelian fashion it was assumed that such a deeper, underlying meaning was typically shared by a larger cultural community or nation and that art could therefore reveal something about the spirit of the time—the Zeitgeist—in a particular cultural epoch. Pace Panofsky, however, Rookmaaker acknowledged the important role of religious convictions in the make-up of any such worldview and in our very perception of the world. In that sense, for him, all perception is "spiritual," in the sense of "spiritually directed," whether oriented towards Christ or not.
Many contributors to Art as Spiritual Perception pick up on the theme of how artists express their "spiritual aspirations, religious beliefs, and concerns about humanity's place in the universe." Jan Siesling, for example, in his discussion of Pieter Saenredam's Interior of the Church of Saint Odulphus at Assendelft (1649), shows how Saenredam depicts churches as "realms of spiritual serenity with a sense of order and well-being, as signs of God's providence" even though not long before they had been "site[s] of controversy and violence concerning art." Kaia Magnussen, in turn, interprets Caspar David Friedrich's Tetschen Altar as an attempt "to reveal spiritual truth through the use of natural elements." Ann Roberts, in her study of John Constable's Dedham Vale (1828), claims that his "truthful depiction of nature" is arguably "the most practical outworking of Constable's Christian faith," while James Romaine argues that van Gogh's Sower with Setting Sun (1888) is the expression of van Gogh's ongoing commitment to "bringing the consolation and hope in Christ to those suffering physically, economically, and spiritually."
In his analysis of Mondrian's Flowering Tree (1912), Graham Birtwistle shows that, like Ruisdael's landscapes, Mondrian's paintings of trees do not present the essence of nature as "timeless and unchanging" but as "destruction and evolution, decay and generation, and . . . the natural cycles of change." Linda Stratford considers Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm (1950) as a celebration of the notion "of Christ as the embodiment of God in human form." And James Watkins interprets the relation between Joseph Beuys and the coyote in Beuys's performance installation I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) as a metaphor for the free, gift like, interchange between God and humanity.
A substantial number of essays also approach the spiritual dimension in art from a different angle. They focus not primarily on the way an artwork represents or expresses a spiritual outlook on the world, but on the role and status of the work in the life of the viewer. How does it affect a viewer's understanding of the world and his or her self-understanding? As it happens, these kinds of questions had also been a major concern of the new social art historians of the 1980s. As John Tagg, one of the authors in the seminal anthology The New Art History, put it at the time:
Without denying the . . . practise of representation, we have to see the objects art history studies as [part of a field of] mutually inflecting discourses and practices . . . subject to but also generating multiple relations of domination and subordination. The question to ask is not "What does it express?" but "What does it do?"
While for historians like him, this question was primarily meant to uncover art's role in relation to established power structures, the question is, of course, no less relevant for the study of art's religious or spiritual role. What role does the work of art play in the viewer's life and how does its religious or spiritual outlook affect the viewer's self-understanding of his position in the world?
As Dyrness points out in his discussion of Hans Holbein's The French Ambassadors (1533), the power of (powerful) images is that they always call for a response. While celebrating the new learning of the Renaissance—the compass, globes, and sundial—Holbein's painting also conveys a sense of fragility and unease about the future—the broken lute string, cross, and skull. The painting thus not only conveys information but participates in a religious struggle. It is conversation partner that requires a response from the viewer.
In the case of explicitly religious art, the work naturally often serves a devotional role. Linda Moskeland Fuchs shows how the imagery on the Sarcophacus of Junius Bassus (AD 359) invites the viewer 'to engage spiritual perception ... by meditating on correspondences between [Old and New Testament] motifs.' Likewise, Rachel Hostetter Smith describes how the combined sensory impressions of stained glass light, architectural height and Gregorian chant in the experience of Chartres' Cathedral could subvert 'the normative functioning of the senses ... so that [the viewer] might be transported, albeit momentarily, to divine reality.' (71) Echoing Walford's claim that 'landscapes are never neutral places,' Henry Luttikhuizen argues that Joachim's Patinir's Landscape with Saint Jerome (c. 1520) should primarily be understood as 'a devotional image, actively promoting opportunities to meditate on the pilgrimage of life.' (119)
Sometimes a work does not do what it seems to do at first. In his deconstruction of the Limbourg Brother's Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (143-1416) Matthew Sweet Vanderpool argues that, although the January illumination is part of a devotional manual containing many Christian iconographical motifs, its image of a royal celebration essentially recasts the duc himself as the powerful centre of the universe. A similar kind of subversion is highlighted by Rachel-Anne Johnson in her study of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting Hunters in the Snow (1565). Although the painting's iconographical conventions can be traced back to the medieval prayer books, the prosperous Antwerp merchant who purchased the series of paintings would have used them not primarily in order to elicit "devotional meditation on religious motifs" but as a way of situating and understanding "himself and his position within the socio-economic fabric of Antwerp." In dialogue with Walford, Calvin Seerveld enlists additional categories or "typiconic idioms" in order to support his claim that Antoine Watteau's The Dance (or Les Fetes Venitiennes) (c. 1717-1719) should not primarily be read as an expression of the hedonistic spirit of the Rococo Enlightenment, but as a bittersweet critique of the decadent hypocrisy of the times.
Matthew Milliner, finally, a former student and now Walford's successor at Wheaton, provides an illuminating survey of art historical commentary on Florence's Brancacci Chapel. Milliner points out that, until recently, almost all attention for this chapel had focussed on its fifteenth century frescoes by famed Renaissance artists Masolino, Masaccio, and Filippino Lippi. This attention was especially directed on Masaccio's innovative naturalism and use of perspective, being considered to be a first sign of a modern look on the world. Fresh scholarship, however, has uncovered that the real focus and attraction of the chapel at the time was the thirteenth miraculous image of the Madonna del Populo, an unnamed western copy of an older Byzantine icon, placed in the middle of the chapel. Instead of representing a new look on the future, this icon re-connected its viewers with their religious past. Milliner shows how this discovery has now allowed scholars to recognise the chapel not as "a mirror for art historians but as sacred space embedded in a vibrant lay devotional culture." For Milliner, this fresh attention to the chapel's devotional role is just one example of academia's "religious turn." According to him, this turn, which has affected academic disciplines across the spectrum, "has perhaps been most acute in the now established focus on religion and religious images in the Renaissance." Milliner quotes scholar Alexander Nagel, who said: "Historians of Renaissance art . . . no longer chronicle art away from religion. Instead they show, over and over again . . . the various ways in which art was embedded in the elaborate structures that joined religious, social and political life."
This raises the question how Walford's Rookmaakerian project as a whole relates to this new "religious turn." It is one thing for socially inclined art historians to acknowledge that art can play a devotional role, but quite another to acknowledge that art contains religious meaning, that it expresses a "spiritual perception" involving a certain view of the world. Is the discipline yet prepared to address these kinds of issues? Personally I'm not so sure. One of the very few art historians who has so far been willing to confront this issue in relation to contemporary art is Chicago-based art historian James Elkins. In his book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art Elkins acknowledges that "straightforward talk about religion is rare in art department and art schools, and wholly absent from art journals unless the work in question is transgressive." He also acknowledges that "the absence of religious talk is a practical issue because it robs such artists of the interpretative tools they need most." And then he ends his book on a somewhat despairing note: "It is impossible to talk sensibly about religion and at the same time address art in an informed and intelligent manner: but it is also irresponsible not to keep trying."
I suggest that Art as Spiritual Perception is a living proof that it is possible to "talk sensibly about religion" and "address art in an informed and intelligent manner." Collectively, the essays compellingly demonstrate that there is a definite need and place for a study of art that takes religious beliefs and practices seriously. Needless to say, Christian art historians are well placed to undertake such research as they are intimately familiar with the textual sources and the devotional experiences that accompany and underlie such beliefs. They are thus also in a strong position to contribute to the formation of the "interpretative tools" that Elkins claims are so needed. Throughout history, art has rarely functioned merely as a means for aesthetic contemplation. Art always conveys spiritual meaning and thus calls for a viewer's response. This book invites us—and an entire discipline—to do just that.
Revised: February 20, 2013 15:56 EST