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This article is taken from PN Review 139, Volume 27 Number 5, May - June 2001.

Sacred Art and the Unbeliever David Gervais

In showing its religious pictures together the National Gallery was motivated by the notion that, despite the deep Christian influence on Western art, many gallery-goers are cut off from such roots by ignorance and unbelief.* Even the Eucharist may need to be explained for them. Fewer and fewer of us understand the spiritual culture the pictures come from, even when we enjoy them as pictures. Sometimes this pleasure seems too limited in itself to open them up. The only thing to do with a foreign language is to learn it, if we want to know what is being said.

My first response to this plausible view is to doubt whether much will be changed simply by our doing our religious homework. The real issue is surely spiritual, not historical. Why should our inwardness with Christian culture hinge on knowledge and beliefs in the first place? No one goes to Fra Angelico out of an interest in the Church Fathers. We get by with classical mythology on the aesthetic level, without studying it in detail. Setting aside the fact that anyone who failed to notice how important Madonnas and Crucifixions were to the old masters could hardly have looked very hard at them anyway, why should belief or unbelief determine our experience of them? In any case, what true believer sees the beatitudes as theology?

It may be that what the exhibition disclosed was not so much a vacuum in our religious lives as our lack ...


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