There was an interesting item about Sister Wendy Beckett, well known to television viewers in the 1990s for her series on Western art, in the Telegraph earlier this week. According to the report, Sister Wendy “regrets the public’s lack of understanding of the Gospel stories, and adds that as a consequence they cannot grasp the meaning of much of the canon of European painting”.
She is quoted as commenting, “In the past everybody knew these stories, although they didn’t necessarily live the spirit of them… This country has been built on the Christian faith – it’s our heritage, whether people believe it or not. They have a right to know what happened and it does sadden me [that they don’t].”
It seems that art historians are now forced to fill in basic gaps, without which many paintings – such as those portraying the annunciation of Christ’s birth to Mary, or Christ washing the disciples’ feet on the eve of his crucifixion – lose the central part of their meaning.
None of us who call ourselves Christians ever lives “the spirit” of the great paintings of Christian theology as well as we should; this goes without saying. But when I wander round the National Gallery, which I try to do whenever I get up to London, I often wonder what impact certain paintings have on the minds and hearts of the crowds trailing round alongside me. Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ is a particular favourite of mine, as is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Adoration of the Kings. Looking at them through Christian eyes is a kind of meditation and thus goes much deeper than mere questions of style, context, chronology and iconography.
This was brought home to me forcibly recently when I happened to read Alain de Botton’s latest book: Religion for Atheists. His point – one might call it a more “nuanced” approach than that of Richard Dawkins et al – is that atheists are missing out on the musical and artistic beauties that religious faith has inspired and that this is a great loss. His solution? That atheists should somehow appropriate the aesthetic fruits of faith – but of course, without being contaminated by the superstitious beliefs that lie behind them.
There is a breathtaking arrogance behind this – but more importantly, there is a pitiable ignorance. De Botton’s opening sentence is “The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true.” Tell that to Johann Sebastian Bach or to Piero della Francesca. What is sad about de Botton’s stance is that for all his rich and privileged life, full of culture, travel, leisure and the pursuit of higher sensations, he knows nothing of the truth and goodness of Christianity, which are intrinsic components of its artistic heritage. De Botton wants to rescue “some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true”. But it is he who needs rescuing – from his gilded prison that prevents him from seeing the deeper wisdom of the paintings that Sister Wendy has illuminated so well over the years.
Of course atheists can study monuments to Christian faith from the point of view of cultural anthropology; but it is inevitably a distorted and truncated perspective. In researching his book, de Botton attends a Catholic Mass and comes to the conclusion that “it is not the ideal habitat for an atheist. Much of the dialogue is either offensive to reason or simply incomprehensible.” How could it be otherwise for someone who has deliberately chosen to remain on the sidelines, trusting to reason alone?
Sister Wendy mentions art historians. I often read the Telegraph art historian, Andrew Graham-Dixon. Yet, knowledgeable though he is, I sense that he is sometimes unsure and tentative when he is describing a Christian painting – because it is clear he is doing it “from the outside”. The late Lord Clark, a former (and very youthful) director of the National Gallery, who became a Catholic before he died, as his son, Alan Clark, relates in his Diaries, has this to say in his book about Della Francesca: “Two unconscious beliefs direct his imagination: his belief in the continuity of life and in the nearness of God…[His] unquestioning sense of brotherhood, of dignity, or the returning seasons, and of the miraculous, has survived many changes of dogma and organisation and may yet save Western man from the consequences of materialism.”