There can be no dispute that the great art of the world has been produced by religion. Think of the great Pagan temples of old and the majestic cathedrals of Christendom, the beautiful sculptures of the Greek gods and the magnificent sculptures of Saints Peter and Paul that grace Rome; all created from the heart of religion. How can it be that the great religious mind of man can also be the one to destroy these great works of art? I can only assume that it is not religion at all, but some awful parody of religion. Certainly, it is not always a bad religion that destroys aesthetics. One can easily think of the French Revolution and the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, or even the Babylonian destruction of the simple yet majestic Jewish temple of King Solomon, as examples of irreligion that have also destroyed or repressed the religious aesthetic of man. This I can understand. A notion of man that is narrowed from the sheer grandeur of, let us say, Christianity is bound to also narrow man’s aesthetic instincts, an instinct that reaches for the heavens.
But how can religion itself do this? One thinks of the Muslim invaders who destroyed the temples of Christendom and the iconoclast controversies that shook Christianity in the 8th and 9th centuries, or the less noble forms of Protestantism that stripped the altars of sacred churches in the honorable name of reformation. As with narrow irreligion, I can only assume that it is a narrow religion that is capable of this.
What has spawned these musings? Oddly enough, it is Edward Gibbon. In chapter X of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the always articulate Gibbon describes the Gothic excursions into Greece (c. 250-260 A.D.) and their irreligious and irresponsible destruction of the temple of Diana in Ephesus.
In the general calamities of mankind the death of an individual, however exalted, the ruin of an edifice, however famous, are passed over with careless inattention. Yet we cannot forget that the temple of Diana at Ephesus, after having risen with increasing splendour from seven repeated misfortunes, was finally burnt by the Goths in their third naval invasion. The arts of Greece, and the wealth of Asia, had conspired to erect that sacred and magnificent sculpture. It was supported by an hundred and twenty-seven marble columns of the Ionic order. They were the gifts of devout monarchs, and each was sixty feet high. The altar was adorned with the masterly sculptures of Praxiteles, who had, perhaps, selected from the favourite legends of the place of birth of the divine children of Latona, the concealment of Apollo after the slaughter of Cyclops, and the clemency of Bacchus to the vanquished Amazons. Yet the length of the temple of Ephesus was only four hundred and twenty-five feet, about two-thirds of the measure of the church of St. Peter’s at Rome. In the other dimensions it was still more inferior to that sublime production of modern architecture. The spreading arms of a Christian cross require a much greater breadth than the oblong temples of the Pagans; and the boldest artists of antiquity would have been startled at the proposal of raising in the air a dome the size and proportions of the Pantheon. The temple of Diana was, however, admired as one of the wonders of the world. Successive empires, the Persian, the Macedonian, and the Roman, had revered its sanctity and enriched its splendour. But the rude savages of the Baltic [the Goths] were destitute of a taste for the elegant arts, and they despised the ideal terrors of a foreign superstition.
Destitute of taste indeed.
The picture at the beginning of this post is the Roman sculpture of Laocoon and his sons, a reproduction of an ancient Greek bronze sculpture that the pre-Christian Romans thought was worth preserving in marble. This sculpture now sits in the Vatican museums and is a marvelous example of pagan art.
The painting that adorns the title bar of this blog is a cropped version of a picture I took in the Vatican museums of Raphael’s Disputation of the Blessed Sacrament. This is but one of many brilliant examples of religious art that has issued from the heart of Christianity. Another fine example is the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls on the outskirts of Rome, which boasts the famous courtyard containing the downright coolest statue of St. Paul ever, and the beautiful mural of Christ, Saints Peter and Paul, and the Four Evangelists on the facade. See below.