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Guide Jesus in Twentieth Century Literature, Art, and Movies

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Fifteenth-century Renaissance art reflected renewed interest in pagan mythology and Christian subject matter alike; therefore, pagan iconography competed with traditional Christian iconography. Proportion, perspective, and human experience were new ingredients in the iconography of the Renaissance. Leonardo's painting of the figures within a perspectival view of a room centered on Christ renders the moment as one of self-conscious and anxious questioning among the twelve apostles.

This painting has become the most popular and most often reproduced object of Christian iconography. In an age in which "man was the measure of all things," the types of human figures ranged between idealized and ethereal images, such as Raphael's Madonna del Granduca and the anxious and suffering figures in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Last Judgment — In the latter, terror lurks in the consciousness of the sinful, and the blessed rise passively to a severe and enigmatic Lord. In northern Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, exaggerated realism in the treatment of subject matter and pre-Reformation currents of thought shaped Christian iconography.

Specifically Reformation iconography illustrated biblical teaching and liturgical practices by the reformers. Lucas Cranach the Elder, a painter and a friend of Martin Luther , presented the subject matter of one of Luther's sermons in the figure of the crucified Christ in the Wittenberg Altarpiece of Here, Christ appears classically proportioned, alive, and without signs of maltreatment. Reacting against "papist" imagery, Reformation iconoclasts destroyed vast amounts of iconographic imagery and liturgical furnishings. For its part, the Roman Catholic Church consciously appropriated iconographic programs in their churches in order to counteract the reforming movements.

Early Christianity

The Council of Trent , held in the middle of the sixteenth century, formulated instructions on the uses of iconography on behalf of the church. If the Reformation in some areas limited or forbade the use of images in the church, the Counter-Reformation encouraged a proliferation of them, thereby stimulating the introduction and expansion of the Baroque style of art.

Eventually the church's use of Baroque forms extended beyond traditional sculptural programs and painted panels to wall-surface decor, ceiling plaster, frescoes, elaboration of vestments and liturgical vessels, and extensive programmatic designs for altars and chapels.

Dramatic highlighting, theatrical effects, and atmospheric illusions were used with iconographic programs to convince believers that the authentic home of spirituality and the true seat of the church's authority was in the Roman Church. Protestant iconography in the seventeenth century emphasized individual experience, and images of Jesus stressed his humanity and participation in the human condition.

Rembrandt's portraits of Jesus, for example, show a thirty-year-old Jewish man; his Deposition from the Cross emphasizes a Christ broken and dead. Roman Catholic iconography, by contrast, stressed the sacramental presence of a heroic Christ in programmatic sequences, such as Peter Paul Rubens 's early altarpieces and Nicolas Poussin 's two series of paintings entitled The Seven Sacraments from the s. Eventually, architects created iconographic environments in church interiors that approximated a heavenly realm, decorated with ethereal figures of saints.

As the German Rococo churches attest see, for example, the Bavarian pilgrimage churches of Balthazar Neumann at Vierzehnheiligen and Dominikus Zimmermann at Wies , the setting for the sacrament was an integration of iconography and architecture that established a place separate from the natural world. While the excesses of Rococo iconographic decoration engulfed worship spaces in eighteenth-century Europe, the New World seemed austere by contrast.

Late-seventeenth-century Christian iconography in North America consisted primarily of small, colorful panel paintings for the Spanish-American communities of the Southwest and of a conservative form of monochromatic portraiture on the East Coast. The art of the Southwest reflected a Spanish Roman Catholic culture with its indigenously adapted Baroque forms.

By contrast, the arts introduced by the Puritans in New England were understated to the point of asceticism and iconoclasm. The elimination of imagery and decoration left a Christian iconography of simple abstract elements created by natural materials and excellent craftsmanship. Early American meetinghouse architecture symbolized a community's place of contact with itself and with God, specifically the word of God. Shaker communities, for instance, made a virtue of functional beauty and created a repertoire of objects that were revered for their clarity of form and usefulness.

Cemetery art in eighteenth-century New England relied on simple abstract symbols reduced to line drawings in stone, representing angels' heads or skulls with wings. The earliest Christian imagery in North America , as found in Western Hispanic communities and the Puritan centers in the East, drew on separate European traditions and enjoyed no cross-fertilization. In the Southwest, images of Christ's crucifixion served Roman Catholic liturgical traditions, public and private.

In New England any iconography that suggested a Roman Catholic influence was considered "papist" and inappropriate. Not only were images of the crucifixion rare, but many churches refused to display the symbol of the cross in order to avoid appearing idolatrous. By the late eighteenth century, the major trends in Christian iconography were competing with the secularization of Western culture and the impact of the Enlightenment. The American and French revolutions witnessed the destruction of institutional hierarchies and the great Christian monuments associated with them.

In France, for instance, the dismantling of the medieval monastery at Cluny and the destruction of royal imagery on Gothic churches at Notre-Dame and St. Nonetheless, during this period the private vision of artists dealing with Christian themes added an enigmatic dimension to religious iconography. For instance, William Blake 's figures from the late eighteenth century combined traditional Christian subject matter with his own imaginative intuition. Whereas the human condition had always impinged upon and shaped the priorities of traditional Christian iconography, personal insight shaped primary subject matter in the latter half of the eighteenth century.

Prior to the Enlightenment, the life of the Christian church, theologically and liturgically, influenced the images and forms of art directly: Christian iconography reflected the "mind" of the church. In the nineteenth century, Christian iconography served more private and artistically formal purposes. The recovery of historical styles in nineteenth-century art and architecture carried with it renewed interest in Christian iconographic themes. The English Pre-Raphaelites, for example, sought to recover the artistic values and qualities of the high Middle Ages.

Generally speaking, nineteenth-century Christian iconography was created to celebrate a popular style — whereas in the past, style had been shaped by its ecclesiastical settings and patrons. Claims about the sublime as perceived in nature or in the depths of human consciousness created new aspects of religious iconography in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

After the Enlightenment, the canon of iconographic subject matter became open-ended. As the formal aspects of artistic production became foremost for artists who in previous centuries would have been concerned with narrative force and meaning, iconographic expression became more independent and individual.

For instance, Vincent van Gogh d. Paul Gauguin 's d. The institutional church, for the most part, disengaged itself from major artists and movements. Under these circumstances, by the late nineteenth century a great part of Christian iconography had become copy work, sentimental and remote from the society at large. A highly individualized Christian iconography was shaped in the twentieth century by the religious consciousness of individual artists.

The German expressionists, for example, insisted upon interpreting and revealing their individuality. When Wassily Kandinsky d. Emil Nolde 's nine-part Life of Christ altarpiece — combines Nolde's interest in the impact of color with a traditional Christian format. George Rouault, more than any other recognized twentieth-century artist, sought to create compelling Christian imagery.

His Miserere series compares Christ's suffering with twentieth-century experiences of human sufferings in war. The work of Max Beckmann d. In contrast, the most popular and most often reproduced image of Jesus in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century was W. Sallmon's Head of Christ , a sentimental, idealized figure with widespread influence.

Fantasy painters such as Salvador Dali and Marc Chagall used Christian subject matter in a unique manner in order to suggest visions of the mind or vistas of a dreamworld fashioned out of the subconscious. Paintings such as Dali's Sacrament of the Last Supper and Chagall's White Crucifixion identify a private vision in which traditional Christian iconography is reinterpreted.

Pablo Picasso 's Guernica has been interpreted as Christian iconography because some traditional imagery appears to enhance its reference to human terror and death, and because it suggests religious meanings. Abstract art in the twentieth century created the possibility for a broadly Christian iconography without recognizable subject matter. For instance, the purely abstract compositions of Piet Mondrian d. Radical individuality and sociopolitical realities influenced the content of Christian iconography in the twentieth century.

Revolutionary movements produced Christian iconography that placed traditional religious figures in advocacy relationships with human beings suffering social and political injustice. In predominantly Communist countries, socialist realism that emphasized the heroic stature of the worker or the revolutionary fighter replaced Christian iconography.

In other cultures, indigenous forms were integrated into Christian imagery. African sculpture, South American painting, and Asian graphics, for example, often provided indigenous twentieth-century iconography. One aspect of the Christian ecumenical movement around the world was to encourage the diverse international community to reclaim and clarify their cultural heritages.

Liturgical arts and iconography in non-Western cultures emphasized their individual locales and traditions. Following the lead of religious leaders such as the Dominican artist-priest M. Couturier — from France, who encouraged abstract and modern artistic treatment of Christian themes, various modern artists entered the arena of religious art.

In the United States , the work of the abstract expressionists from the early s to the s summarized much of the religious consciousness that had been expressed in modern art during the first half of the century by various abstract and expressionist movements. In works such as Robert Motherwell 's Reconciliation Elegy , Mark Rothko 's chapel in Houston, Texas , or Barnett Newman 's Stations of the Cross — , religious subject matter seems identical with expressions of radical individuality.

The twentieth century also saw the emergence of Christian iconography in new media, notably film and electronic communications. Matthew engaged a public separate from the church. The mass media, which now included home video, offered traditional Christian subject matter in extended narrative form as dramatic entertainment.

In the film entitled The Passion of the Christ drew worldwide attention. Such presentations of Christian stories are a form of Christian iconography, but in their cultural context they appear to be no more than stories from one literary source among many, iconography for entertainment rather than worship. The function of Christian iconography has varied in each generation. It has always been a living language of images invented by the religious consciousness of communities and individuals.

Until the modern era, the figures of Jesus and his followers were always central to iconographic programs, but during the twentieth century the focus shifted to the individual iconographer on the one hand and to major cultural presentations of the stories on the other. At the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century, individual parishes, independent religious communities, and various national responses have introduced their own Christian themes to the iconographic vocabulary. For instance, the so-called African experience or Asian experience have been given renewed attention through their arts.

Religious art continues to be affected to some extent by political and social forces. Censorship efforts on the part of religious communities have attracted headlines, but these efforts have not been effective in the general public. Pornography has been attacked for religious reasons but remains a major media industry. Antireligious attitudes have caused small episodes of outrage, but in the end the art world has not been seriously affected. Within the large variety of Christian communities around the world, expanded interest in iconographic imagery has produced a wealth of artistic activity.

Iconography: Christian Iconography

Nevertheless, the proliferation of art in the Christian church has not become a major factor in the art markets of the world. Leading collectors of Christian art, for instance, have not been identified, and museums do not offer major collections of Christian art unless it has some other value than just being religious. However, interest in religions, generally, has risen in the twenty-first century for political reasons, and interest in religious art and architecture has increased accordingly.

It may be that the academy and the general public will become more interested in the arts of world religions in the near future because religion has become a central theme. Other factors leading toward a larger role for religious art are the expanding place of museums in society and the relaxation of the traditional split, in the United States at least, between church and state. Another tendency that is emerging in the twenty-first century has to do with the way various distinctive cultures in the world have artists who are reinterpreting the Christian biblical stories in their own cultural vernacular.

Earlier efforts that translated the biblical story into the major languages of the world have led artists to apply traditional Christian iconographic themes to a variety of modern cultural settings. Such works of art also remind observers that the same was true when Christian iconography was first invented and emerged within the context of the Roman Empire. Cultural settings have always shaped Christian iconography and will continue to do so. Bottari, Stefano. Tesori d'arte cristiana. Bologna, Italy, — Excellent photo-essays on major architectural monuments and their contents from early Christian times to the twentieth century.

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