….diminishing art, rising secularism…

Some time ago I came across a thought provoking article contrasting Islamic art with Christian art, the one proscribing depiction of the human form, the other celebrating it. Of course, the prohibition against portrayal of the human form arises from the traditional concern about idolatry. The two approaches to aesthetics clashed toward the end of the first millennium (A.D.) when Byzantine Christianity, heavily influenced by the surge of Islam in Asia Minor and North Africa challenged , unsuccessfully, Latin Christianity’s use of religious statuary. While this iconoclastic tendency was later manifested in some of the more puritan forms of Christianity, the prohibition against the depiction of the human figure has generally prevailed in Islamic art to this day.

Perhaps it is an over-generalization to state that the abstract appeals to one’s mind while the representational touches one’s heart.  It is interesting, though, to contemplate how the Christian dogma of the Incarnation and its sanctifying effect on the physical world relates to this fundamental difference in the artistic expression of the two religions.

An interesting result is the intellectual – perhaps even spiritual – response the abstract intricacies of Islamic art evoke by way of their beautiful geometric patterns and designs. There is a sense of capturing flawless perfection. Christian art, on the other hand, tends to elicit a more visceral and emotional response with its artistic representation of us imperfect human beings, struggling as we do with the limitations of our humanity.

Perhaps it is an over-generalization to state that the abstract appeals to one’s mind while the representational touches one’s heart.  It is interesting, though, to contemplate how the Christian dogma of the Incarnation and its sanctifying effect on the physical world relates to this fundamental difference in the artistic expression of the two religions.

It would not be an over-generalization to state that the production of sacred art – at least in the United States – is not a thriving endeavor. Consider the churches, schools and residences built in the last 40 years and ask yourself how many display new – or any at all – religious statues, painting or icons. (Parenthetically, think of what the word ‘icon’ means to a generation x-er). In the spare environments that typify so many of these venues only a convinced Quaker with highly developed spiritual awareness would be able to sense the presence of the Divine.

It is a question worthy of pursuit. Why in the United States do sacred art – and the creation of it – not enjoy a more vibrant popularity? Does it somehow relate to the tendency in our nation to eschew things ‘religious’ and to embrace things ‘spiritual’?

One person who asks herself this question every day is Sister Paula Beierschmitt, an I.H.M. Sister (Immaculate Heart of Mary). Keenly aware of the correlation between the diminishing use of sacred art and the rise of secularism, Sister Paula founded the American Academy of the Sacred Arts in 1993 after consultation with theologians, canon lawyers and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The Academy (www.aasacredarts.com) ,which has tax exempt status, is a non-profit organization established in response to the Second Vatican Council’s call for more vigorous artistic expression of the faith. Its purpose is to glorify God in the cultural disciplines through the creation of original art and educational outreach.

Sister Paula has a formidable challenge ahead of her. Those familiar with her talent and drive have reason to hold out hope for the Academy’s success.

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