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Is Art Beneficial or Distracting in the Religious Context?

Since the time immemorial, the art has served as one of the primary methods of world exploration, a way of spiritual expression and a sanctuary of beautiful. The art’s connection with the religion is especially significant. While some of the world’s greatest minds perceive the art as the way to cognize and glorify the God, others claim that the process of communication with God should be as free of distracting artistic elements as possible.

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Abbot Suger (1081-1151) was one of the most prominent art patrons, a powerful adviser to kings and an unwearied inspirer of reforms of his time. He is mostly known as a godfather of the Gothic style in the church architecture. Being inspired by the theological works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Suger decided to remodel the Saint-Denis Abbey main church in a completely new unexpected manner. He planned to add as much divine light to the building as possible. The church had to be bright and sky rushing (Bogdanović 116); thus one can observe the huge stained glass windows and peaked arches instead of round ones. For Suger, rich and intricate church decoration was there to fill human minds and souls with majestic light (Brown and Kershner 57). In his work “On What Was Done Under His Administration” Suger states that every small detail make it for the viewer’s feeling closer to God: “…the loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial” (qtd. in Brown and Kershner 57).

Suger’s contemporary, a famous theologian and Cistercian monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) had the opposite point of view on the religious architecture. His protest against luxurious adornment and flashy beauty of art is expressed in the Apologia to Abbot William of Saint Thierry. In his letters to Suger St. Bernard praised the patron for his intentions but accused him of the overall result. St. Bernard accuses the church of being obsessed with tangibles rather than moral and spiritual perfection, for the indulgence of richness and exuberance (Reilly 128). He is indignant at the fact that exquisite marbles distract from the God and that people would rather “spend the whole day wondering at every single one of them than meditating on the law of God” (qtd. in Reilly 128).

The dispute between the supporters of Suger and those of St. Bernard had a place in the period of history when religion determined every sphere of human life. The architectural monuments inspired by Suger’s innovations had emerged across Europe till the heyday of the Renaissance era in the early XVI century. Looking from the historical perspective, one may notice that gradually people started to realize that superfluous finery is not crucial for communication with the God. The peculiarities of the religious art changed depending on the newly created or transformed values (Brown 214). Nowadays the contradiction between artistic freedom and religion is not that significant. Modern art can even contravene religion especially in the secular West; nevertheless we treat the religious monuments with due regard (Shusterman 7-8).

To my opinion, the art and religion in the modern world do not bother each other. Religious masterpieces should be perceived as an inalienable parts of the civilization’s development. Once they were amazingly luxurious, the other times surprisingly modest. Regardless of that, no artistic work can distract a person who truly believes in God in her worship. Because the God is not in the temple, but in one’s soul.

Works Cited

Bogdanović, Jelena. 2011. Rethinking the Dionysian legacy in medieval architecture: East and West. 2015. Web.

Brown, Frank Burch, and Frederik Doyle Kershner. Good taste, bad taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in religious life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

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Brown, Frank Burch. The Oxford handbook of religion and the arts. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.

Reilly, Diane. “Cistercian art”. The Cambridge companion to the Cistercian order. Ed. Mette Birkedal Bruun. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 125-143. Print.

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StudyCorgi. 2022. "Is Art Beneficial or Distracting in the Religious Context?" February 24, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/is-art-beneficial-or-distracting-in-the-religious-context/.

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