I have just had the privilege of attending the preview opening of The Sacred Made Real, an exhibition of Spanish polychrome sculpture and painting from the 17th century, at the National Gallery in London.
Some of the artworks are paintings, some are brightly painted wood statues. In some cases the paintings appear, in fact, to be paintings of nearby statues! I was struck with the fact that the paintings and statues were very clear and very beautiful. But I do not find myself much moved spiritually, oddly enough, by having pictures of important spiritual events paraded in front of me. I know my salvation depends on Jesus’ death on the cross, but images of it do not necessarily inspire me to prayer or praise. Nor do constant parades of images of the Annunciation or the Madonna and Child move me to prayer or praise on the mystery of the Incarnation. Good poetry or music is actually a lot more likely to do that.
An exception is when a painting, or a set of them, presents Biblical, theological, or exegetical data in a new or striking way. One example is from Wittenberg, Germany, two years ago. There was a painting, I believe by Lucas Cranach, that showed the pole on which Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert so that those looking on it were healed. The pole was, in the painting, a T-cross, or St Matthews cross, and the snake was sort of hung over the top of it. Nearby, another Cranach painting, of Jesus crucified on an identical T-cross. Point made, Mr. Cranach!! Another example is a form of the “noli me tangere,” Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Christ immediately after His Resurrection, in which, evidently to be mistaken as the gardener, he is carrying a strikingly modern looking shovel. I have seen one of these shovels in a fifteenth century wall painting at the cathedral in Constance, Germany, and another in a seventeenth century masterpiece by the French artist Poussin, and I could swear I have seen it someplace else. Anyhow, if I ever do an Easter decoration at home, alongside the empty eggs and the bunnies and other such, there will surely be a shovel. I decided to call that image “the ground breaking of the Kingdom of God.” There is no evidence that Jesus symbolically turned over a shovelful of earth to mark the occasion, but never mind.
Anyhow, I have set down my issues about religious visual art. And it’s not a problem about other people’s idolatry necessarily, though I think it’s horrible to treat a picture of Jesus or the Virgin as if it were actually Jesus or the Virgin. Maybe I’m too Protestant. Maybe I’m neither of the MTV Generation (Gen X) or the You Tube Generation (the Millennials). Maybe I didn’t watch enough television when I was a kid. Who knows?