What makes art religious?

adoration of the magi schierenberg
What constitutes religious art? It seems sacrilegious art is much easier to recognize on sight. Simcha Fisher writes:
Some of it [religious art] is stark, some gentle, some lovely, some weird, and some of it just plain hideous, but it all has one thing in common:  it at least tries to direct people toward God.  (And of course secular art, just like someone who isn’t even religious, is also capable of leading people to God, often unintentionally.)  You’ll notice that this is a very broad goal.  There are as least as many paths to God as there are human beings, and what works for one person might seem like pure crap to another.  But all religious art that strives for that title has the goal of leading people toward God.
Fisher then deconstructs the above painting by artist Tai-Shan Schierenberg’s “The Adoration of the Magi”:

So let’s look at this “Adoration of the Magi.”  Is it a problem that these “Magi” are not kings or wise men, that they’re not even all men, that they don’t have historically accurate clothes or hair, or that they don’t show any signs of bearing gifts or of having traveled afar?  Not necessarily.  These departures from more traditional art may irritate or perplex you, but they aren’t enough, in themselves, to disqualify this painting as religious art.


The reason I call it a secular painting is because it kind of  . . . doesn’t have God in it.  The Magi’s faces take up most of the canvas; but that’s not what I mean.  I mean is that this painting is about the “Magi” themselves, and not about God.  A depiction of the Adoration of the Magi might have all sorts of elements in it, but  it absolutely must contain at least an indication that what they are adoring is God.  This is what is lacking in this picture, and that is what makes it not religious art.


You can tell by the shadows and highlights that the light source is above and to the right, out of the frame.  As I’ve discussed before, what light is doing in a painting is — well, enlightening. In a traditional piece of art depicting the Magi, the light would be emanating from below, from the Christ Child, or from above, from the divinely-appointed guiding star.  In this painting, there is a significant break:  the light — late morning sunlight, from the looks of it — is from above, from behind the faces, and to the viewer’s right.  And it’s pretty clearly just the sun.  Why this innovation, if not to make a point?


You can see very plainly that these three are looking, with tenderness and some deep thought, at a baby — or at least at something smaller than themselves, something which is causing them to think deeply.  This is no mean feat, depicting a face (never mind three) which is indisputably seeing something, thinking something.  The viewer fully believes that there is a child there, several feet down and to the left, beyond the frame of the picture.


But what is the expression on their faces, as they look at him?  They are withholding judgment.  Their oddly prominent lips are closed and at rest, without anything to say.  This is not a meaningless, mute painting, though.  It portrays very poignantly the religious experience that so many modern people have:  they have come to see what the fuss is about.  And there it is.  They look at God, and they don’t know what to think.

These are modern magi:  exceedingly clean, healthy, and decent, confident but courteous.  But do they adore?  I don’t see it.  I don’t think they see God, at all.

Stinging indictment of us modern wise guys. Detachment, not adoration at the face of God. Read the whole piece here.

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