Pleasing the Gods

1 Jun

The Great Mosque of Cordoba

I think I waited so long to write this post because it’s the most complicated of the “Five Reasons” that I’ve discussed.  Religion has been perhaps the most volatile subject for humans discuss since we first met different tribes and realized that not everyone had the same ideas on the subject.  It’s virtually impossible to discuss the topic without offending someone, but here goes nothing.

At the same time it’s also one of the easiest to discuss, especially when it comes to art.  I once took a Japanese art class where we studied a set of prehistoric bells that were meant to have a religious purpose.  The professor reminded us that, “After all, music and dance were created as ways of doing something extraordinary for the gods.”  It stands to reason, then, that if the performing arts were created to appeal to deities than surely the visual arts were, as well.  The natural desire of religious humans is to create beautiful things in honor of their deities, whether they are songs or paintings.

How pervasive was this idea?  We think of pottery as a way of making practical vessels – tableware, containers, and the like – but many of the earliest surviving works from clay that survive are actually small figurines that experts suggest were used for magical or ritual purposes.  The difficulty in assigning religious meaning to these objects, however, is that no written records exist to say what exactly their purpose was supposed to be.  We don’t know what kinds of deities or rituals these groups had, so making assumptions about their religion based on what we know about the subject today is more than a bit arbitrary.

It is much easier to see the combination of art and religion by looking at architecture.  Most of us have at some point in time been in a house of worship and are at least passingly familiar with the theology behind the architecture.  The most moving example of this that I’ve ever seen is the Great Mosque of Cordoba.  Even without knowledge of Islamic theology and the conventions regarding the building of a mosque, you immediately get the sense that you’re in a mystical, holy place.  Islamic tradition states that no images of humans or animals may be depicted in a mosque, so the decoration is limited to vegetation and the intricate scrollwork that is the hallmark of Islamic art.  The end result is a stunning environment for prayer and a testament to the works of beauty humans are capable of in the name of religion.

Window depicting the Adoration of the Magi in Westminster Abbey

Works of beauty can also be educational, as well.  Since most people in Europe were illiterate in the Middle Ages, the church relied heavily on images to teach about Christianity.  These were incorporated into church structures in many ways.  The most striking, however, were the stained glass windows that were created for the Gothic cathedrals.  The glowing colors not only illustrated Biblical passages to the people but did so in a way that make worshipers feel like they had entered some sort of heavenly space on Earth.  Unfortunately the modern eye can’t fully appreciate how amazing these windows, and the cathedrals in general, were to the common people when they were first built.  Imagine, though, if you will, if you had never seen a movie or television show, if you had no books or magazines at home, how grand these windows must have seemed.

Creating art for religious purposes is fundamental to the human experience.  It’s rather unfortunate that religion is often seen as such a force for destruction and hatred in the world when it has also inspired some of the most astonishing works of beauty that history has passed down to us.  When works of art were created for worship they are tinged with a certain extra element of care that can create a touching moment for the viewer, as they were intended.  These are works of art that are meant to not only, as I put so in delicately, please the gods, but also inspire others to experience the divine.  Whatever your own religious beliefs, I think you can agree that Man can have no greater goal.

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