Reviews of

The Art of the Sacred: An Introduction to the Aesthetics of Art and Belief

In Christian Art, Early Christianity, Graham HOWES, I. B. Tauris, Iconography, Leonard Aldea, Reception history on May 19, 2012 at 8:28 pm

2012.05.09 | Graham Howes. The Art of the Sacred: An Introduction to the Aesthetics of Art and Belief. London: I.B.Tauris, 2010. ix + 190 pages. (PB) £18.99. ISBN: 9781845110062. (HB) £52.50 ISBN: 9781845110055.

Reviewed by Leonard Aldea, Durham University. 

RBECS would like to thank I.B. Tauris Publishers for kindly providing us with a review copy.

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The present volume is the 2010 reprint of the 2007 first edition. However, parts of the book itself and the research behind it are much earlier than that, as the author’s 1988 copyright attests. This is worth keeping in mind if one uses the book for research purposes.

The aim of the volume is summarized by its author as an attempt ‘to do three things: to examine the degree to which aesthetic experience can shape religious experience, how far the former can reinforce the latter (and vice versa), and how far such a process can militate against, and perhaps wholly negate, such experience.’ (p. 1)

Methodologically, Howes identifies four dimensions of influence between art and religion – iconographic, didactic, institutional, and aesthetic – on which he focuses his analyses. This analytical distinction between the four otherwise inseparable layers of interrelation allows the author to move freely throughout the book both chronologically, from early Byzantine iconography to Modern Art, and topically, so that he may change the main research question from one chapter to another.

The volume is structured in nine chapters, each taking further the theoretical exposition of the first chapter by looking at it from different perspectives. This reflects a different, interior and less visible structure of the research, with a brilliant and almost purely theoretical first chapter, followed by the remaining parts which can easily be read as a sequence of case studies and related research questions. There is an overall feeling of misbalance between the brief theoretical system put forward in the first chapter, and the overwhelming wealth of information needed to sustain the case studies approached in the rest of the book. Graham Howes’ fascinating tour de force among the history of art and theology reflects the quality of the research behind the present volume and turns it into an excellent introduction into the field of ‘art and religion’, but it also overshadows the first chapter and makes it difficult to sustain throughout the book its more general and theoretical principles.

In the three chapters following the research framework set up in the introductory part, the author provides the reader with three relevant case studies. Each of these chapters is built around a different research question which is then looked into by means of a case study. Thus, the second chapter is titled ‘Art, Religion and the Victorians’ and attempts to depict the interaction between art and religion in the particular time and space of Victorian culture.

This focus on a specific environment shifts in the following chapter, ‘Seeing Salvation’, which addresses the question of the impact religious art has upon the individual viewer. This is one of the most ambitious and rewarding parts of the book, as there is hardly any empirical research on the response religious art creates in its consumer. As a result, Howes needs to generate his own research material, and he does so by using the viewers’ reactions to ‘Seeing Salvation – the Image of Christ’, an exhibition staged by the National Gallery London in 2000. He makes use of interviews with individual viewers as they come out of the exhibition, interviews with the major art critics covering the show, the data provided by a Gallery-commissioned inquiry into visitor reaction, and the letters received by the Gallery from over three hundred individuals after having seen the exhibition. This research and its resulting conclusions offer a fascinating perspective into the less known and deeply subjective reactions religious art creates in its viewers; the chapter itself is a highlight of the volume.

The forth chapter moves away from the relationship between art and its viewer, and investigates the interdependence between ‘Patron and Artist’. This time, the starting point is provided by the story behind Henry Moore’s sculpture of a ‘Madonna and Child’ and Graham Sutherland’s ‘Crucifixion’ painting in St Matthew’s Church, Northampton. Although not as challenging as the topic of the previous part, the chapter provides the reader with an intriguing insight into the religious consciousness of two major British artists by citing as large from the correspondence carried between them and their common commissioner, John Walter Hussey.

‘Holy Places and Hollow Places’, the fifth chapter of the volume, ‘is concerned more with religious buildings themselves, not merely as works of art, but as vehicles for personal and communal experience of belief’, while the following two chapters focus on the two-way relationship ‘between an artist’s professional identity and their religious identity. (p. 91) Chapter six, ‘Artists, Institutions and Faith’, looks at the way in which an artist’s professional identity shapes the very expression of their personal beliefs. The most compelling part of the argument is built around two major Modern Art works – Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, and Rothko’s Chapel in Houston.

Comparatively, chapter seven, ‘Artists as ‘Believers’’ addresses more or less the same topic, but from the opposing perspective, trying to examine ‘the role of religious identity, ideas and personal beliefs in shaping artistic self-expression’ (p. 114) The chapter reads as the first section of a more consistent two-part chapter, made up of chapters seven and eight. In ‘Artists as ‘Believers’’ Howes limits his investigation exclusively to pre-Modern artists, referencing everything one would expect, from the Second Council of Nicaea, Theophanes the Greek and Andrei Rublev, to El Greco, Rembrandt and William Hunt. However, chapter eight, which is titled ‘From religion to Spirituality’ completes the examination started in the previous chapter by involving three artists of the twentieth century – Bill Viola, Anthony Gormley and Craigie Aitchison. The book is rounded by its final chapter, ‘Theology and the Visual Arts’, a more theoretical part which mirrors the introductory section.

In the opening ‘Preface and Acknowledgements’, the author writes that ‘this book has had a long gestation, and its contents reflect an evolving, often serendipitous, preoccupation with aspects of the precise relationship of visual to religious experience, both individually and collectively, within differing cultural and creedal contexts’ (p. vii). This ‘long gestation’ is probably why the present volume looks more like a collection of essays on related topics, rather than a book. However, the same ‘long gestation’ made possible the encyclopedic wealth of research and information behind the volume, which turns it into one of those books one keeps returning to for future reference.

Leonard Aldea
Durham University
leonard-daniel.aldea [ at ] durham.ac.uk

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