“Art is the engine that drives religion’s vehicle”

The title of this blog is a quote I scribbled down in my religion notes from the legendary Dr. Middleton, my Religion: Understanding Text & Ideas – The Wisdom Books (yes I know, LONG title) professor. Dr. Middleton, if you happen to be reading this, you’re the man, and so much of your class content intertwined with my learning experience in Europe. Honors kids, if you are reading this, take a class with Dr. Middleton – you will learn so much!

Dr. Middleton casually sprinkled this profound statement into one of his lectures, and I never quite fully understood what he meant by it until I explored Europe and saw some of the most famous sacred art pieces in history.

Art plays a huge role in religion, especially in Christianity. Over the past two millennia, religion and art have closely coincided with one another. Art is the reason that when people say the name “Jesus Christ” an image of a particular man pops into our head. Christian history is filled to the brim with paintings and sculptures that depict scenes from Jesus’ life. Art helps personalize the religious experience, brings to life the stories of faith, and reflects a sense of reverence to the divine. On the surface, we can look at these magnificent religious art pieces and grandiose cathedrals and dismiss them as greedy displays of power. In some ways, this is historically true, but for me the depth of art travels much further than that. Sure, you could say that the Vatican was simply an extraordinary “power move” to showcase the wealth and reign of the Catholic Church. But when you walk through the largest cathedral in the world and stand less than 20 feet away from the buried bones of Peter, one of the martyrs of the Christian faith, you begin to look at it in a different light.

I have always believed that art has the power to provoke emotion and empathy; it has the power to promote a heightened understanding of the things we are passionate about. I was deeply moved by many of the pieces I saw. Whether it be the Crucifixion or Jesus’ descent from the cross, each and every artist portrays the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus in a different, personal light. I believe that this in and of itself can be glorifying to God.

This blog could fit under all of the categories considering all of the art we saw throughout Europe, but today it specifically falls under Rome because I wanted to elaborate on my experience seeing the Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Pietà is a sculpture by Michelangelo of Mary holding the body of Jesus in her lap. It is the only work that Michelangelo signed. Before I embarked on Cultural Routes, I asked my grandmother about seeing the Vatican and she mentioned the Pietà to me. She explained that it is so deeply moving to see that it brought tears to her eyes. It is hard to imagine a sculpture evoking that much emotion, but when I saw the Pietà, I understood.

It is a masterpiece. Mary, a figure of elegance, beauty, and grace, holds Jesus, weak, frail, and limp in her lap and glances down upon Him with a gaze of sadness but also a gaze of hope. I saw her heartbroken spirit and the love in her eyes, but also observed a sense of graceful peace and acceptance.

To me, the Pietà illuminates Mary’s selfless love but also illuminates the idea of Jesus being God in the flesh. Jesus, the humble King, who walked the Earth with His people, set an example of what perfect love is, suffered an excruciating crucifixion, conquered death, and gave the gift of grace to all, is depicted dead in His mother’s arms. As I stared at the heart-wrenching piece and reflected, I couldn’t help but think of all of the “Madonna and Child” paintings, frescos, and altar pieces I saw throughout Europe of Mary holding baby Jesus in her arms.

The Pietà provided a full circle experience; it was Madonna and Child at the end of Jesus’ life. With the focal point of the sculpture on Mary, the Pietà depicts Jesus as Mary’s son once again, but this time at the conclusion of His holy sacrifice for humanity. The Son of God was also the Son of Mary; a child of divine power but also a child of humble beginnings. Michelangelo’s work demonstrated the weight of Jesus’ sacrifice and caused me to reflect on the weight of Jesus’ love.

With all of this in mind, I now have a better sense of why Dr. Middleton once said that “Art is the engine that drives religion’s vehicle.”

It is art like the Pietà that causes us to reflect more deeply on the things we believe in; it helps us see things in a different light. I am immeasurably thankful to have had the opportunity to do so in Rome.

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