In the past, many religions have used art to reach out to the illiterate masses and teach them the way of deities. In Italy, frescoes were painted to teach the poor and uneducated (who were not learned enough to read the holy book) the stories and parables of the Christian Holy Bible, by depicting scenes of the testaments both new and old. This was an attempt to make Christianity accessible to everyone, which is one of the many teachings within the bible. In Hinduism, the many gods and avatars are represented using the 64 traditional arts that range from classical music pieces, songs and sculpture to the adornment of jewellery and plays of holy stories, with symbolism used throughout each, the most common being the lotus flower representing gentleness and peace and extra arms, legs or heads which are used to symbolize power and strength. But in today’s society of growing religious arrogance and high literacy rates (in the West at least) does religious art still maintain its importance?
It certainly does for museums and art galleries, in an economic way at least. Salvador Domenec Felip Jacint Dali I Domenech, Marquis of Dali de Pubol or as he is most commonly known Salvador Dali, one of the worlds most celebrated artists and one of the most photographed men of his time, owes at least some of his immense fame to religious art as most of his surrealist paintings contain many religious undertones and symbolism. Some of his work is very obvious in its religious themes such as ‘The Temptation of St. Anthony,’ the print ‘The Birth of a God’, or ‘Christ of St. John of the Cross’ which remains the most popular exhibit ever to be shown in St. Mungoes Church of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow, which just goes to show that when these pieces and others like them are displayed anywhere in any gallery across the world they are guaranteed to attract an absolute flood of visitors and their wallets.
But Salvador Dali isn’t the only person to inject their beliefs about religion into popular culture through the medium of art. Take for example a young singer-songwriter by the name of Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (Lady Gaga to you and me) who has expressed her deep passion and connection to religion is not only in her song lyrics and at several gay rights rally’s, but most strongly in her music video for ‘Alejandro’ the final single released from her last album ‘The Fame Monster’ where she wears several outfits resembling traditional Christian uniforms such as a nuns habit and a long, red and white, hooded coat bearing the Christian cross. Her latest single ‘Born This Way ‘, is mostly made up of tributes to god such as the lyrics ‘I’m beautiful in my way because God makes no mistakes ‘. The famous Madonna (birth name Madonna Louise Ciccone) has also used religion in her work with songs like, ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ and ‘Just Like a Prayer’. But probably the most successful and controversial use of religion in recent popular culture would be a best-selling and controversial book, which caused major anger within the Christian community.
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‘The Da Vinci Code ‘ by Dan Brown, a fictional book about a man called Robert Langdon who uncovers riddles and signs within the art of Leonardo Da Vinci, the master behind the infamous ‘The Last Supper ‘. Langdon soon begins to know too much and leaders of Opus Dei, a Catholic organization that Dan Brown exaggerates into being a group of catholic priests who strive to protect the secrets about Christ to the rest of the world, start trying to kill Langdon off before he can get the holy grail, the holiest of Christian artifacts. The book was incredibly popular in 2004 and its sales beat only by J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ‘ and have so far sold over 80 million copies worldwide while causing much controversy and anger within the Catholic and Christian communities and among supporters of Opus Dei.
When a movie of the book was being made the director Ron Howard was urged by many leaders and followers of the Christian and Opus Dei faiths to clearly state that the book and movie were completely fictional, and in no way at all factual. Howard refused and the movie went ahead. People thought the story blasphemous and anti-Christian and even though Dan Brown insisted that it was a work of total fiction, he became hated by many of the Christian faith, one cardinal from the Vatican even appealed to Catholics and other branches of Christianity to join him in an effort to ban the book and the film. “Christians must not just sit back and say it is enough for us to forgive and to forget,” said Francis Arinze. The prelate of Nigeria (who was a contender to become Pope in 2005), when he made his opinion clear in the Documentary ‘The Da Vinci Code: a Masterful Deception’, “Sometimes it is our duty to do something practical. So it is not I who will tell all Christians what to do but some know legal means which can be taken in order to get the other person to respect the rights of others.
” To me, this story goes to show that religious art still has a way of bringing out the passion in people and the will to fight for their beliefs. While a novel may not be considered a form of religious art, it certainly took more than a little skill from Dan Brown to make the book so believable and so powerful that it caused upheaval in the Vatican and Brown himself to receive death threats. In a way, the book brought Opus Dei, Catholicism and other branches of Christianity together in fury over the slandering of their faith which some may not see as important percent, but what can not be disputed is the fact that the book amassed millions of dollars and made the headlines of newspapers all over the world, becoming one of the most talked-about subjects of 2004 onward and one of the most famous books of all time.
Many people still argue that artists and writers such as the above mentioned include religion in their work merely to shock people and cause controversy to hopefully get their name or work in the papers and therefore become better known, and why wouldn’t they? It works! As I said ‘The Da Vinci Code’ sold over 80 million copies, Lady Gaga’s video for Alejandro has over 120 million views on Youtube while her newest single which was released only a month ago has a total of just below the 50 million marks, and almost 30 years after her debut Madonna is still an apple of the public eye and her popularity shows no signs of fading. So religious art still maintains a certain amount of importance within the media, selling papers, making artists better known and whatnot, but what about in religion? Does religious art play any part in religion today? Or is it just a way for artists to tell the world of their passion for their faith?
Of course, religious art isn’t in any way limited to Christianity, art plays a much greater part in Hinduism. Hinduism is commonly believed to have been founded around 1500 BC, and Hindu worship (Puja) is almost solely based around the 64 traditional Hindu arts. Mantra’s (chants) are probably the most common form of Hindu worship, but many Hindu’s worship images or sculptures of their chosen gods and chant before then such things as, “From the unreal, lead us to the Real; from darkness, lead us unto Light; from death, lead us to Immortality. Om peace, peace, peace” to their deities. For many Hindus living in traditionally non-Hindu communities, their often intricate images and representations of their gods serve as a comfort in of a familiar religion and as a reminder of their roots and where they have come from. Their art inspires meditation and worship and is so important within Hinduism that there are towns in India such as Vrindaban and the neighbouring town of Mathura whose sole use is to create and produce Hindu art for use all over the world.
But why do people pay to view exhibits, buy songs, and watch such movies? Is it some deep connection to the art of these kinds that people enjoy? Is it maybe a bond that they feel to god while observing a religious painting or hearing a verse of pure devotion? Or is it merely to boast to their friends about that day they went to see that famous thing that guy painted? Whatever the reason, it is clear that religious art does have a certain power to compel and captivate people into spending their hard-earned cash to see what is effectively some oil paint sloshed onto the surface of a rather big canvas and not very different from many other, non-religious forms of art. I agree with Graham Diamond, who I interviewed at St. Mungoes Museum, as long as there is a religion of any kind in the world or an interest in the people of the past, religious art will always have its place. It speaks to all people both religious and otherwise in a way that is similar to everyone and yet unique to each person.
Subtle symbolism and more obvious images and poems such as the Hindu Mahabharata tell us stories that help us understand religion in a way that can be interpreted in an infinite amount of ways and can help future generations learn about us and our ancestors and our fascination with religion and the gods. Interview with Sandra Stanners, Museum Supervisor and Graham Diamond, Visitors Assistant at St. Mungoes Museum of Religious Life and Art. What sort of background do you come from? Sandra- Well, I don’t come from any particular background, um, I was brought up in a household where religion just didn’t play a part in our daily life at all. Totally non-religious. So, Why did this job appeal to you?
Sandra- erm… I actually worked in Kelvingrove cafï¿½ at the time, sort of, part-time and the job of a museum assistant role came up around about, sort of 21 years ago and I applied for it, and was successful enough to get the job, which then sort of took me around all the various museums, and I found myself at St Mungoes museum around about 8 years ago. And do you yourself have an interest in religious art? Sandra- I’ve made myself sort of have a bit of an interest in it since I work in a building or um, museum of religion so you know, [my knowledge] is suitable for all the various religious groups that come into the building, so, you know, just to have a wee bit of knowledge and understanding of their um, their faith and their culture. Are you religious at all? Sandra- No.
What kind of exhibits do you have at St. Mungoes? Sandra- We have the Scottish Gallery upstairs which sort of, hosts artifacts and information on religion in the West of Scotland. The eh, second floor is uh, what we call our temporary exhibition and at the moment that has an exhibition by the name of ‘Stardust’ which em, takes in, takes in the discussion about death and that’s a really good exhibition for you to visit. I did actually visit that it was really interesting. Sandra- It is really interesting. And that takes us up to June this year for that particular exhibition, and then it will sort of, change again, and on the first floor is what we call our art gallery and leading off from that is our comparative gallery, and that’s the one that covers the six main faiths decided at the time for Glasgow in the 1990s. So, what has been the most popular exhibit in recent years? Sandra- The Salvador Dali painting, ‘Jesus of St. John of the Cross ‘ which is no longer with us now.
What kinds of people come to visit these exhibits? Sandra- Oh… Uhm… I mean like, from a religious standpoint. Sandra- Erm, well it varies really em I’d say our biggest, em, audience are from other countries so they are like, tourists and that would incorporate a lot of you know, various people from all over the world and we rely a lot on local people, communities, students, and anyone else that we’re kind of reaching out to through the educational programmes which we have within the museum and again that brings in uh, a lot of different sort of, backgrounds and we also have a faith-to-faith programme which works on and off at different times of the year which usually falls on a Sunday and they incorporate various, uh, topics which again takes in various religious groups.
In recent years, has anyone of great religious importance visited the museum? Sandra- I think, well, I don’t know if I was on duty or if I’d decided to, uh, or it was postponed, but the Dalai Lama and someone… well I don’t know if he came to St. Mungoes, but he definitely passed by it. I might eh, Graham! Graham! Just wait a second he’s been here a bit longer than myself, but in uhm, my eight years I wouldn’t actually, eh, know if anyone of great importance or… Oh, Graham! Do you want to uhm repeat that for Graham. Of course, sure, uhm, has anyone of very high religious importance visited the museum in recent years? Graham- I’ll not be quite as fortunate but the Dalai Lama was up to make a visit to the museum… Sandra- Yeah, uh, I think that we must have been off that day Graham- That was, uh, just before I started actu- Sandra- oh was it? Graham- yeah it was- Sandra- I think that he um…
Graham- Uhm, yeah I do think that he was the most important religious figure, uhm, but we do get the moderators of the Christian churches coming in, we also got the archbishop of Glasgow coming in, and eh, major church figures passing while visiting Glasgow had been here while signing a declaration along with quite major religious representatives from all faiths coming in, like foreign dignitaries and eh…. yeah. Sandra- It’d be nice to have the pope in but eh… Graham- Aye, he just passed but, when he visited the city Sandra- Aye he passed but I think that’s just as far as it goes. So do you think that religious art has had an influence on popular culture or vice versus? Sandra- Well, umm, what do you mean?
Well, I mean like, you know in the past the only art around was religious art, and that’s all that was really there to be seen, but do you think that it still has an influence nowadays in the media or in popular culture? Sandra- Well uh, do you mean does it help people have an understanding of religion or to make integration easier or? Well, yes things like that. Sandra- Well I would say that it is a positive thing, that it does have its place in society certainly on a kind of scale of Salvador Dali’s ‘Christ of St. John of the Cross’ which, even for someone like myself who is non-religious, was in itself very, very powerful, you couldn’t deny that it captured an audience and the came in their troves and had the appeal that you know it was obviously meant to have but um, whether it had appealed to other religions out with Christianity I do not know if it’s like iconic or anything.
Um… but yes I would say so, um, I mean the big thing for me working here was that I got to learn about Judaism which I didn’t know anything about really, I mean they mostly all resemble each other but Judaism was one that I thought had the exact same family life that I grew up to have. Obviously, I was unreligious but learning about it made me understand otherwise, and well, as you probably saw our top floor has very clear and easy to understand sections which are there to teach the many young children that we get in here about the six main religions in Glasgow and I think that it’s important to understand them at a young age. So um, yes I’d say so. Okay, um, so do you think that religious art has relevance in today’s society? Sandra- For erm, for learning and education purposes for understanding about different faiths and acceptance and things then I would say absolutely but uh, are there other reasons that you can think of that I might be missing here…
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Graham- uhh… Sandra- I don’t think that you can not have it because it’s not just topical I mean you can’t just dismiss it as umm… you know unimportant. What about in the future because in the world there is a lot of growing religious arrogance and there are a lot more people who are not religious, you know because of things like the world becoming more scientific so do you think that religious art will maintain it’s the significance? Graham- Well, where there is religion you know, there will always be art in some form or another. You know actually…. Sandra- I think t will always remain as it helps bring religious tolerance and knowledge I mean I know they link in but um, I think those are the two major topics of the sort that religious art helps in a way. Well, thank you, thank you both I think that’s really all that I need. Thank you for your time.