When bad art happens to good religion

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.

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  1. billydinpvd

    Even people with bad taste deserve devotional art they can relate to.

    Bill Dilworth

  2. Sara Miles

    Exactly. Taste is not the measure of holiness. As a friend of mine says, “God loves tacky, because God loves what’s from the heart.”

  3. If art doesn’t evoke an emotion (whether good or bad), it isn’t doing part of what it was intended to do… in my humble opinion. I’m aware, as an artist, that many of my assemblages are not well liked (perhaps not well understood either)…but, if a comment (on Christian art), good or bad, is made, it is, it has, in the least, made people look, examine, and see, (perhaps only within themselves), what they believe, or maybe even challenging what they believe, and to look beyond that. God uses ordinary people (art), to do extra-ordinary things!

  4. Paul Theerman

    Context, folks. The difficulty with “bad” art is that it provides a not very nuanced approach to the divine. Sometimes people don’t need nuance, but much of the time they do.

  5. Ellenllyons

    Is it safe to assume that the final sentence of that bit of prose is a nasty anti-Roman Catholic slam? Even passing on the obvious comments about art that has emerged from that tradition, should someone mention to her artists such as Johannes Schrieter with his beautiful, spare modern stained glass? Or should we let her think all Catholic art is the Baroque chapel in Austria she saw on holiday?

    Ellen Louise Lyons

  6. Do read Lori’s full article posted on ENS. She continues: “Commercial images, as opposed to fine art or folk art, are designed to appeal to the widest possible audience. By taking the safe route, they rarely challenge, puzzle, or inform us. Great art, in contrast, pulls us ever deeper.” Note that by “great art” she includes folk art or children’s art, which may be technically crude. I would exclude the depiction of the Ascension by ten toes hanging out of a cloud, even though it be well painted. (Lori can speak for herself on that one!) The issue is whether the art conveys the reality which it means to depict. I don’t think Precious Moment figures do. (I’m sure Lori also excludes my collection of bobble-head Jesus figures.)

  7. I’m sure some of our rising art critics would be willing to contribute a sheet or two to the museum. Also, I bet there are a lot of wigs abandoned by their owners who’d give them up…just imagine Jesus in a red pixie cut…Fabulous!

    I think “the nasty anti-Roman Catholic slam” is in the eye of the beholder. Don’t ya’ think Raphael and Michangelo might have been Roman Catholic?

    Lan Green

  8. billydinpvd

    I wouldn’t have gone with the RC’s as the image-rich foil of the Quakers, but the Orthodox.

    What I find interesting is the contrasting views of different Christian groups (and fellow travelers) not to art but to beauty. Some groups seems to view any attempt at making a place of worship attractive as idolatrous in itself: think Jehovah’s Witnesses or the average Church of Christ. Some of these congregations seem to revel in ugliness as a proof of holiness.

    Bill Dilworth

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