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For many years, I lived minutes away from the Church of San Giovanni in Bragora in the Castello district of Venice. Nothing about its humble brick façade hinted at the presence within of a magnificent altarpiece: “The Baptism of Christ” by Cima da Conegliano.
Painted in 1492, the Baptism shows a porcelain-skinned Saviour standing in a stream framed by tree-dotted, rolling hills. To my art-historical eye, the gnarled branches, sage-green turf and translucent water summoned the detail-obsessive ghosts of the Flemish painters. But when my neighbour Maria looked at the painting, she had a different experience. Now in her 30s, Maria had been born and bred in the centuries-old community. When she went to Mass every Sunday she experienced “The Baptism” not as a work of art but as a conduit for her prayers. “When I see Him, I feel protected,” she said to me.
Her attitude may seem archaic to those of us in irreligious metropolitan hubs who are more used to seeing religious paintings in museums. As John Berger pointed out in Ways of Seeing (1972), today sacred art is considered more in terms of its provenance than its message. Just last week, news broke of a challenge to the authorship of Leonardo’s “Virgin of the Rocks”, a flagship of London’s National Gallery. Now some experts are suggesting that the flowers in the foreground lack the botanical precision that was the master’s forte.
Such allegations are harmful to the value of a painting and to the status of the museum. Yet the work itself is no more or less beautiful, moving or uplifting. “[The] spiritual value of an object . . . can only be explained in terms of magic or religion,” writes Berger. “And since neither of these have any force in modern society, the work of art is enveloped in an atmosphere of bogus religiosity.” Berger’s real quarrel here is with photography. In the age of the reproduction, he says, a work of art becomes interesting less because of what it says than because of what it is: the original. “Works of art are discussed as if they were holy relics . . . which are first and foremost evidence of their own survival.”
Yet there was a time when paintings were genuinely considered relics. When Maria experiences Cima’s Christ as a living presence, she is tapping into the faint splutter of a current that stretches back to the early Christian era. Then, images were regarded as material evidence of God’s existence. In his magnificent book Likeness and Presence (1993), Hans Belting explains how images emerged in the first centuries after Christ’s death despite the prevailing belief that God was essentially invisible and indescribable. In such a climate, one way of justifying them was to regard them as proof rather than representation.
Just up the road from Cima’s Baptism, for example, St Mark’s Basilica houses “The Madonna Nicopeia”, an icon that was probably painted in Constantinople in the 11th century but around which clung the tale that it was a true portrait of the Virgin painted from life by St Luke. Legends also surrounded various cloths said to bear the trace of Christ’s image when he wiped his face upon them. Such images denied the presence of the artist’s hand entirely.
Many icons were believed to have supernatural powers. They bled, wept, spoke and healed the sick. Belting recounts the tale of an image of the Virgin, which, during the period of iconoclasm, “fled to Rome unaided, covering the distance in 24 hours, standing upright on the water”.
Icons were sources of authority for their owners, who were usually public bodies: churches, monasteries, kings and emperors. But their power provoked tension; icons were fought over and attacked. The Venetians wrested “The Nicopeia”, which was believed to offer protection to its holder, from a Byzantine chariot while they were battling for control of Constantinople in 1203. During the most intense period of iconoclasm, which lasted from the early 8th to the middle of the 9th century, the icon of Christ that adorned the palace gate in Constantinople was twice torn down. When it was reinstated, in 843, it was in the form of a mosaic by a painter who, writes Belting, had been mutilated by the iconoclasts.
Once icons were no longer fighting for their right to exist, they became more expressive. By the 11th century, the archetype of a single frozen, mute holy figure was challenged by more emotional scenes, such as the Annunciation or encounters between the Madonna and Child. They chimed with private individuals who wanted an image that would speak directly to them. Michael Psellus, an 11th-century Byzantine monk, owned a Crucifixion. When he describes himself as a “connoisseur of icons”, and writes that the “beauty” of one Virgin struck him “like lightning”, it reveals the icon is en route towards an aesthetic as well as a spiritual identity.
The territory on which this transformation took place was Italy. There, icons were less controversial than in the Orthodox world, which had the Islamic caliphate — where sacred images were a no-no — on its doorstep. Wealth created by the growth of commerce, especially in Tuscany, gave birth to an explosion in demand. Most important, this was a world that had opened its borders. Greek artists and their icons were arriving from the east, while Italians were travelling across the Alps to witness French and German gothic sculpture.
In the vanguard of the new sensibility were two Tuscan painters, Giotto and Duccio. Around 1305, Giotto was commissioned to paint a chapel in Padua by the banker Enrico degli Scrovegni, who, many scholars believe, was hoping to atone for the sin of usury. The result was the New Testament retold as a gripping melodrama that unfolded against craggy mountains and azure skies made real by Giotto’s grasp of spatial perspective. Duccio, meanwhile, enhanced the almond-eyed beauty typical of Byzantine Madonnas with a new vitality and tenderness. His sentiments, Belting suggests, were inspired by the Italian love poetry that was popular at the time. That images were in dialogue with other arts is a further sign that they were moving beyond a purely religious function.
By the time Cima painted his altarpiece, the rediscovery of classicism breathed imagination — spiritual, philosophical and artistic — into painting and sculpture. A secular genre of portraits and allegories burgeoned. The arrival of printing revolutionised distribution. A new critical appreciation developed as writers, including artists such as Dürer and Leonardo, wrote texts explaining what made a good painting.
Such activity precipitated crisis. In Germany, the Protestants shunned sacred art so forcefully that in 1525 the artists of Strasbourg were begging for other work. In Italy, the Counter-Reformation fought back with an edict by the Council of Trent that “images should be set up . . . in churches not because some divinity or power is believed to lie in them . . . but because honour showed to them is referred to the original which they represent.”
Perhaps that pronouncement marks the death knell for the magic Berger mourns. Deprived of its supernatural potency, sacred art began the journey towards its new home in the museum, the auction house and the critical text.
Yet undercurrents of numinosity can still be felt. Maria’s faith in her altarpiece is shared by millions who attend churches graced with images. But their voices are inaudible, whereas those of the curators, critics and market-makers are ever louder. Meanwhile, artists, most recently Bill Viola in St Paul’s Cathedral and Ai Weiwei in the chapel of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, continue to house their work in holy spaces.
Arguably, the hunger with which so many of us flock to museums — often en famille, often on a Sunday — is the 21st-century equivalent of a trip to Mass. Perhaps many of today’s wealthy patrons are, like Enrico degli Scrovegni, trying to win redemption after making their money in nefarious ways.
Several years ago I interviewed the abstract painter Brice Marden. The essence of secular, Manhattan cool in beanie hat and jeans, Marden was one of the most passionate, focused artists I have ever met. Art obsessed him, both his own and others’. After we had been talking a little while, he mentioned a visit to the Acropolis museum. “Watching the light streaming in [hitting] these sculptures, this smooth marble that’s supposed to be flesh . . . ” he hesitated, aware that he was about to say something that sounded slightly crazy. “One of the things you always think is that you could make a sculpture that would become alive. Or a painting that would cure diseases.”
It sounds far-fetched; yet his words reminded me that in Quattrocento Italy the pigments for oil painting were sold in the same shops that sold apothecaries’ remedies. I must confess too that, during my Italian years, sometimes when I stood in front of Cima’s altarpiece or another similarly beautiful, I too felt the shiver of presence that touched Maria. Perhaps Marden is right when he says that museums are cages for a potentially dangerous force. “Art has power and energy and the reason that rich people want to buy it is because they want to control that power. [That’s why] they put it in museums, behind glass,” he said to me, smiling yet quietly serious.
Or perhaps the truth is that where once religion was the opium of the masses, now it’s art that soothes us with a glimpse of another dimension. Whatever the reality, you can take the image out of the church but the scent of incense lingers still.
Photographs: Bridgeman Art Library; Alamy
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