The Passion and compassion
Richard Viladesau on art, meditation, and the affections
“Sacred art . . . both reflects theology and is reflected by it. But the aesthetic medium also has criteria of its own, and these affect the message. Because of the way visual art presents data, it is necessarily more concrete than conceptual thought, since the artist must necessarily choose specific spatiotemporal objects to portray, and must locate them in a visual field. But in interpretation, visual art is less specific. This becomes increasingly true as art attempts to reproduce empirical experience, rather than serving as a symbolic medium for conveying ideas. This is of course exactly one of the transitions in the meaning of art that took place in the Renaissance. To the extent that a picture presents empirical data, the message that its viewer receives depends on what “interpretative baggage” the viewer brings to it. Of course, Renaissance art, as we have seen, is far from attempting photographic realism. The artist is still conveying ideas and messages, and still attempts to portray or to evoke of a level of beauty that is seldom encountered in concrete everyday experience. But the conceptual element is necessarily more vague as the naturalistic and decorative elements become more important. Moreover, Renaissance art explicitly appeals to the emotions; hence, as compared with medieval sacred art, it is more visual and visceral than conceptual.
“Another tension that increasingly comes to the fore in Renaissance sacred art and music concerns the purposes of art. Medieval sacred art already had a decorative purpose, and consciously sought beauty of form. Savonarola’s complaints about excessive artistry getting in the way of the message were not entirely new. Yet a number of factors in the Renaissance exacerbated the tension. We might mention a few: advances in technique; the use of pagan models and themes; the change in patronage from clerical to secular; the increasing presence of sacred art in private dwellings rather than churches, due to the wealth of princes and the bourgeoisie; the growing importance of purely secular art and music; a new empirical spirit of observation and depiction of nature. All of these factors led to the beginning of what Hans Belting has called ‘the era of art,’ that is, the modern situation in which the arts exist for their own sake, rather than simply as the conveyer of a religious message or as a medium of encounter with a supernatural presence.
“One might ask what effect the new tendencies in painting and sculpture toward naturalism and toward independent aesthetic values had on the religious message in sacred art. From one point of view, one might say that there was generally no discernable effect on the message, at least as far as content. Renaissance preachers took moral lessons from events in the Scriptures; Renaissance religious art did the same. We can recognize in the message of much Renaissance religious art the theological characteristics of the late Middle Ages, particularly of the devotio moderna: mistrust of intellect, and emphasis on emotion; stress on good works, including the feeling of compassion for the sufferings of Christ. The naturalistic portrayal of the events of the passion and of the grief of Mary, or the portrait-like representation of Christ, might more effectively evoke such a compassionate emotional response, leading to a corresponding response in the affects and will and ultimately in behavior. For many medieval thinkers, this was the very purpose of meditation on the passion. On the other hand, the humanistic and Platonic tendencies in some art might implicitly convey different messages: about the value of the world and the beauty and goodness of the human body; about ways of seeing, and the nature of representation itself; about society and its attitudes and values.”
— from Richard Viladesau’s The Triumph of the Cross: The Passion of Christian Theology and the Arts, from the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation (Oxford University Press, 2008). Viladesau was interviewed on Volume 123 of the Journal.