Art is universal. It goes beyond gender, age, race, nationality, politics, and location. It is for everyone and it transcends time. Art can be appreciated and created by anyone – and there is no single right way to do art.
Aside from these, art is also very much present in religion. Different religions have their own unique expressions in religious art. Some of the more popular forms of religious art are Christian art, Buddhist art, and Islamic art.
In Catholicism, art is closely linked with faith, tradition, practices, and praise. Art is not just a way to show religious motifs and inspiration that aim to uplift the spiritual mind or to strengthen one’s faith. Artworks that depict Jesus Christ, Mother Mary, angels, and the saints and apostles are considered holy and are used for veneration and prayer.
One can say that in Catholicism, the function of art as a form of creative expression, communication, and self-definition extends quite well when used in religious expression. Here are some of the many ways art is used by many religions, including Catholicism:
- It can aid in historical study. Most religions trace their origins back to many, many years ago. Aside from the usual documents and texts that most religions use to build and establish their beliefs and practices, art pieces can also speak volumes about how certain religions started and was propagated. The Ellora Caves in India, for example, represent various religions in India. There are 17 Hindu caves, 12 Buddhist caves, and 5 Jain caves. These caves feature religious art carvings on the walls. It is a good snapshot of the origins of various major religions in India. For Catholics, many scenes have been painted to depict events from the Bible. Almost every important event has a painting or artwork for it, from Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark to the birth and crucifixion of Christ.
- It presents important doctrine. Do not disregard crumbly documents that contain the doctrine of a particular religion as just documents – these are artworks in itself. An example is the Book of Kells currently being kept in Ireland. This illuminated manuscript contains the Gospels in Latin that are lavishly decorated. This symbolic Christian manuscript is missing some pages but remains to be a strong representation of the Christian Gospel. The Hindu sacred texts the Vedas and the Upanishads are also considered art in itself, especially with these texts being written using the intricate Sanskrit. The oldest Koran in the world, the Othman Koran, is considered not just as a religious artifact, but an art relic as well.
- It commemorates important religious events. Who is not aware of The Annunciation by Fra Angelico, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, the many stunningly intricate monuments such as the Taj Mahal and the Dome of the Rock, or the Mahishasura by Tyeb Mehta? Those who follow a religion often have their own works of art, whether it is a painting, a sculpture, a fabric, or a monument, to commemorate an important religious event.
- It depicts religious figures. There are some religions that prohibit depictions of religious figures in any artwork, but there are many that liberally use sculpture, paintings, and drawings to represent important people in their religion. The Buddha alone has numerous statues all over the world. This practice is heavily seen in Catholicism. Go inside any Catholic church and you will see various sculptures and paintings depicting God, Jesus, Mary, angels, and various saints and apostles.
- It communicates the religion’s beliefs and teachings. No matter the subject matter of a piece of religious art, it says something about the religion it represents. It may be to explain the origins of some religious practice such as the baptism of Jesus in Jordan River or to represent a specific belief such as the arabesque in Islamic art to symbolize the transcendent, indivisible, and infinite nature of God.
- It provides inspiration to the followers of the religion. Many of these pieces of religious art are also treated with respect and veneration by religious followers. Some artworks are actually looked upon more for their religious and spiritual aspects than for their artistic value. It is not unusual for some religious followers to have reproductions of some religious art as a constant reminder of their beliefs and as an inspiration, especially during difficult times. These artworks are often very sacred to religious followers and know just how to inspire people.
- It raises awareness of religions. Religious artworks are not confined to churches, mosques, and other places of worship. These pieces of art can usually be found in museums and everywhere. The presence of these artworks helps to raise awareness of the religion it represents. This is important because it paves the way for the understanding of different religious beliefs and practices.
Art is everywhere and like mentioned at the start, art is universal. Although there is a difference in how art is used in different religions, it is still an inherent part of almost any religion. For Catholics, art is a vital part of our spiritual life.