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Friday, September 22, 2023


How art speaks to the masses

Art has the power of relaying messages of faith and religion through imagery | Courtesy of MFAH

Art and theology have been irrevocably tied together since the beginning of history. Often used as a tool to communicate to the historically illiterate masses. Art was the most effective way to convey a message. To relay what society should look like through the eyes of the gods.

Initially, most if not all art was religious or political in context. Although more often than not religion and politics were simply two sides of the same coin. Wealthy patrons commissioned artists to create art in order to push a certain agenda. Whether it be personal or public, religious or political. Most artists did not have the means to create masterpieces. Making art was expensive and so the wealthy had a monopoly on the kind of art that was made.

Madonna and Child with Souls in Purgatory, a piece by the Neapolitan painter Luca Giordano, is currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and a part of their permanent collection. This awe-inspiring piece stands over six feet tall and over five feet wide. Giordano’s piece depicts the Virgin Mary holding Christ while seated on a bed of clouds floating over souls trapped in purgatory desperate pleading to be released from their stagnation and suffering.

When viewing the Madonna and Child with Souls in Purgatory, the viewer is level with the souls in purgatory. The viewer makes eye contact with Madonna as if searching for a similar sense of salvation. Not only would this painting have influenced people to return or join the church due to its beauty, it also served as a way to advise and warn the people against the church less they find themselves stuck in purgatory. While everyone might not be able to read and understand the teachings of the Bible, images are a universal language.

The destroyer and transformer

Centuries earlier in another part of the world, art and theology were similarly always intertwining. The Kaveri River saw an erray of temples constructed during the Chola dynasty in India. Ornate figures heavily decorated these temples. One of these figures, Shiva Nataraja, is located at the MFAH. Shiva is a Hindu deity. with three eyes and two to four arms. In this particular instance Shiva is portrayed as the cosmic dancer (Nataraja).

In this sculpture, Shiva is performing the Tandava, representing creation, preservation and destruction. Under Shiva’s left foot is Apasmara, a demon dwarf who symbolizes human ignorance. Shiva holds a damaru (an hourglass shaped drum) in his hands, another symbolic item. With this Shiva provides the rhythm for the dance as well as representing the sound of creation. Moreover, Shiva is making the abhaya mudra gesture of blessing, meaning do not fear. These intricate and detailed figures awed the Indian Hindu worshipers. Much in the same way in which the Madonna would have awed Catholics in Italy. These temples built by the emperors employed and encouraged the people of India to devote themselves to Hinduism. Simultaneously they displayed their power through their architectural feats.

Although these pieces were made in different parts of the world, in different periods in time, their purpose was the same. Art meant to inspire devotion to their respective religions.

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