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True art is never less than religion in disguise or explicit; true religion never less than art in disguise or explicit. The divinity of the faith, the spark, the Fünkelein (as Eckhart had it), is to be shared just as it has immemorially been shared — if perhaps unwittingly so since the Age of so-called Reason.

For countless millennia art was religion and religion art — from the parietal masterpieces of the Upper-Palaeolithic on scarcely accessible cave-walls of the Dordogne and Pyrenees; or from the indestructible treasures of the Torah or Old Testament: triple-authored Isaiah; David’s encompassing Psalms; the ecstatic Song of Songs, the blazing autobiography of Job — all fruits of an ancient Israel roughly contemporaneous with an ancient Greece likewise to contribute to our inheritance, by courtesy of the quasi-divine if dysfunctional junta of Olympus. The works of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes were always staged as offerings to the gods, by virtue of their inspiration: that gift of the psyche, the soul. Hence the divine architectural statement of the Parthenon, or the Olympic Games in holy celebration for the aesthetics of physical man, pinnacle of the gods’ creativity.

So too art’s unity with religion in the legacy of the civilisations of the Nile, Mesopotamia, the Indus or Yellow River — or Hindu, Buddhist, or Sufic creativity in whatever form it was to take: words or music, wood or stone, paint or ceramic, tapestry or embroidery; statuary or architecture. Art and religion remained one.

The Jewish figure of Jesus came to enshrine his own legacy in art as, supremely, the spoken and written word in the redemptive message in his own person and his disciples’ experience of him. He came to “fulfil the law”. God was love, and the fulfilment of love entailed self-loss to this or that degree: be that one person’s love for another, or for all others or indeed for nature in its beauty, Hopkins’s dappled things, love for one’s devoted dog . . . for her species’s name reversed, in prayer, in praise, mortification and the total letting-go of self in God.

Now, none of us who creates has not known some such self-loss in the throes of inspiration. There is no comparable exhilaration save that of love reciprocated in the act of it. It is the “divine frenzy” known to Plato (there’s that Yeatsian word again), it is the tears on Handel’s cheeks witnessed by his housekeeper as he emerged from composing the Hallelujah Chorus. It is Edward Elgar’s exclamation scribbled against the concluding bars of The Dream of Gerontius (to Newman’s poem) “this is the best of me”. Or it is Beethoven’s defiance, aged 30, at descending deafness, in his Heiligenstadt Testament, and it is Schubert’s wrestling out his towering song cycle Winterreise as he lay dying at 31 of syphilis contracted seven years previously — during which time he had poured forth countless works he knew he would never live to hear performed. Here was art declaring its unity with Being, with the self-sacrifice religion calls for.

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Penelope
March 21st, 2017
2:03 PM
Very interesting and thoughtful article. thank you. I have forwarded it to my daughter who is an Art Therapist and might have other things to say about the value of art.

philip goodman
February 23rd, 2017
12:02 PM
hello tom long time no see or hear

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