More on atheist appreciation of religious art

Nigel Warburton has a very interesting guest post by Richard Norman on the ‘Whether Atheists Can Appreciate Religious Art’ topos. Norman talks about Piero della Francesca’s ‘The Resurrection,’ which his comment caused me to look at again. It’s a terrifically interesting painting; I already thought so, but the discussion intensifies that thought (as such discussions tend to do, which is one huge reason art criticism and literary criticism are not footling wastes of time); it also made me think about why.

Some of what Norman said:

The assumption here is that the truth presented by a religious work of art must itself be a religious truth. That is what I want to question. Of course Piero’s painting is a depiction of the resurrection, but it does not give us any reason for believing the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. How could it do so? (It’s not as though it were photographic evidence or anything of that sort.) The truths which it conveys are human truths, truths which help us in the understanding of our human condition…And that is specifically a truth about human beings, because the features of the work which convey it are the recognisable human characteristics of the figure rising from the tomb.

Yeh. I’ve been claiming something similar in the earlier thread on atheists and appreciation of art – that paintings about some part of the story of Jesus interest us or move us for human reasons rather than specifically religious ones. As an atheist I am in fact left cold by paintings of Mary ascending into heaven amid blasts of trumpets (yes, those are painted blasts), for instance, but not, as I mentioned last week, by the supper at Emmaus, which is very human.

Piero’s painting is enthralling in somewhat the same way as ‘Las Meninas’ – maybe partly for the same reason – Jesus fixes us with his cold straight gaze in just the way Velasquez does in Las Meninas. We feel seen: pinned: examined: weighed in the balance and found – we know not what. He’s uncomfortable to look at – in fact he looks slightly fanatical (well he would, after all that) – and perhaps that telltale reaction is exactly the wrong, ‘atheist’ one that does get in the way of my proper appreciation. But then again perhaps not, perhaps it’s just a variation in preference: I would surmise that a lot of religious people prefer their Jesus with a different expression. Some want him angry, militant, dividing the sheep and the goats; others want him meek and mild; others want him looking like a mensch. Is that religion or just de gustibus?

Back to Richard Norman.

The truths conveyed by The Resurrection are also to be found in the figures of the sleeping soldiers at the base of the tomb. Again the truths are conveyed in the significance of the poses and expressions of the human figures. They say something about the propensity of human beings to miss the miracles that are going on in the world around us – in this case, to be oblivious to the transformation and renewal of human life, and to the corresponding transformation and renewal of the natural world, as represented by the change from the bare trees on the left of the picture to the new growth on the right…The general point is that the truths conveyed by great religious works of art are human truths.

I’ve always loved the sleeping soldiers – slouched and snoring away while miracles happen all around. We’re all the soldiers, crumpled, shapeless, all anyhow, of the earth earthy, while Jesus is almost rectangular in his uprightness and straight-aheadness and his chilly stare. I can appreciate the painting (I think), despite being an atheist, in the same way I can appreciate the presence of the ghost in Hamlet despite not being a ghostist. They work almost like thought experiments, such works; we have to (and we do, at least we can) think our way into them. It has to do with imagination. The Romantics would probably have thoght it was downright heresy to think imagination has no power to help atheists appreciate religious art.

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