Art has always been related to religion. Cave walls were covered by magical signs that were supposed to ensure the protection of supernatural forces during hunting. In the Christendom of the Middle Ages, there was a long debate about whether it was permitted to create images of God. Those who claimed that it was prevailed. As a consequence, European art has drawn on religious themes for centuries. In the 19th century, however, religious art was pushed into the background to become marginalized in the 20th century. How did this happen? What is its place in modern culture?

Many religions are based on texts: Judaism and Christianity on the Bible, Hinduism on the Vedas. Remembering the content of these texts was often made easier by religious paintings or sculptures. To be effective, however, such works had to be straightforward. Artists could not present religious events in any way they liked. In 1808, the German painter Caspar David Friedrich made an altar painting for the castle chapel in the Czech town of Tetschen. He painted the cross on top of a mountain. He did not paint the scene of crucifixion but a cross with a sculpted figure, much like the ones that can be seen on the roadsides. For the painter, the crucifix was enough to symbolize faith. Nevertheless, the work was interpreted as a landscape and provoked protests. People disapproved of replacing a religious theme with a landscape scene.

Any deviation from tradition in religious art raised objections. It was feared that viewers’ attention would be drawn to elements other than the intended religious content. However, great artists, such as Giotto, Michelangelo or Delacroix, knew how to reconcile tradition with an innovative artistic idiom. On the other hand, the prevailing opinion in the 19th century was that religious art was too schematic and hampered artistic development. This view is belied by the works of the French artist Georges Rouault who was active in the first half of the 20th century and drew his inspiration from the thought of the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. Very raw in their form, Rouault’s paintings depict simplified figures of saints without diminishing their religious gravity. The painter is sometimes referred to as ‘the only religious painter of our time.’ Where did this opinion come from?

In his 1882 book, The Gay Science, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: ‘God is dead.’ What he meant was that modern people do not need God. The Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky was of the same opinion. In his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art from 1910, he wrote that, because religious faith is dead, it is no longer possible to paint good religious paintings. The same conclusions were reached by the Polish artist Jerzy Nowosielski. He was inspired by icons, that is images of God venerated in the Orthodox Church. In 1989, Nowosielski said, full of resignation, that painting icons was like ‘rehashing things that cannot be rehashed,’ meaning that truly religious and spiritual paintings could not be painted any more.

Such attitudes may be countered by the work of many contemporary painters who have not lost their faith in God, such as Danuta Waberska, Aldona Mickiewicz, Tadeusz Boruta or Adam Brincken. For years they have created very innovative, and very diverse, paintings that speak about an important place of God in people’s lives. Mickiewicz paints pictures with no human figures in them. She can express the drama of biblical events through objects alone. In 1992-1993, together with Tadeusz Boruta, the artist painted a cycle of intriguing altar paintings for the former Benedictine Monastery in Monte San Savino in Italy.

In contemporary art, however, personal beliefs of the artist do not play a decisive role at all. In his 2004 book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, James Elkins said that the School of the Art Institute in Chicago leaves no room for art stemming from a genuine religious inspiration. This is not because God is dead but because it is better for religious students not to make their views public. Religious art is simply not welcome in Western artistic institutions, schools and galleries. An exception is made for the kind of art that criticizes religion, that is for ironic and derisive works.

This aversion to religion has a long history. Religions set out moral standards that people should observe in their lives. An example of that is the ten commandments handed down by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. In modern culture, however, there is a growing conviction that religious principles restrict man’s freedom and suppress his instincts. According to Charles Darwin, man can survive in a hostile world only if he is able to take care of himself. Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that artists could be truly creative only when they rejected tradition. The Austrian doctor Sigmund Freud said outright that ‘culture is the source of suffering.’ This is but one step away from the false conclusion that, since religious art supports moral teaching, it must be opposed to human freedom, which means that modern art should not follow religion.

The Polish artists mentioned above represent a different approach, as Polish culture is very strongly related to Catholicism. When Poland disappeared from the map of Europe at the end of the 18th century, Prussia and Russia – two of the three powers that partitioned the country – suppressed Catholicism in order to weaken national traditions. A similar thing happened after the Second World War when Poland was ruled by the communists. Their aim was to create a ‘new man’ who would not need religion. As Poland’s national tradition was entwined with Catholicism, the communists started fighting with the church. For a lot of Poles, attacking faith meant attacking their freedom. Religion was the source not of suffering but of strength. The case of Poland shows how much history can determine the attitude to religion and religious art.

Suggested illustrations:
1. Georges Rouault, Christ Mocked by Soldiers, 1932, Museum of Modern Art, New York
2. Aldona Mickiewicz, The Entombment, 1993, oil on canvas, 100 × 148 cm, ’Dom Praczki‘ Gallery of Contemporary Religious Art, Kielce