Lori Erikson asks if there is any good in bad religious art.
On a recent visit to a museum dedicated to Christian religious arts, I came up with a potential addition to the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not use life-size wax mannequins wearing bad wigs and bed sheets to illustrate scenes from the life of Jesus.
I feel a bit bad being cynical about this museum, which was founded with the best of intentions and which I’m sure is meaningful to many who visit it. But as I viewed its Precious Moments figurines, paint-by-number Last Suppers, and Technicolor depictions of angels borne on puffy clouds, I found myself getting increasingly grumpy.
The museum illustrates one of the ironies in Christianity. Some of the world’s most sublime works of art were created out of profound religious devotion—think of Raphael’s Madonnas, Michelangelo’s David, and Orthodox icons gleaming with gold. At the same time, a lot of Christian art is sentimental, cheesy and even a bit creepy. If you doubt me, search for “bad religious art” on the Internet and be prepared for a torrent of rainbow-festooned Biblical scenes, angels borne on shafts of light, and Jesus carrying people across beaches.
The museum gave me some sympathy for Muslim and Jewish traditions, which have strict guidelines regarding religious art. We Christians have struggled at times with this issue as well, most spectacularly in the eighth century when zealots smashed Byzantine icons because they were believed to violate the Biblical prohibition against graven images. We eventually made our peace with religious art, though some of us are more comfortable with it than others. Think of the contrast between a Roman Catholic church filled with ornate statues and paintings and the austerity of a Quaker meeting house.