Back to the Renaissance: How Art, Theology, and Philosophy Have Intersected Throughout the Centuries
It’s 1600 AD, you stand at the Contarelli Chapel and look at a new painting which depicts five men at a table. Two of them on the left focusing on the money at hand, two of them on the right, one leaning to the left and one leaning to the right. Another man, Jesus Christ, stands to the right, pointing at who we know to be the Apostle Mathew, the tax collector. The painting you are looking at is The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio, an Italian painter who spent most of his life living in Rome, in the heart of what we now call “The Renaissance.”
The Calling of St. Matthew is only one of Caravaggio’s some 90 paintings. Impressive for a man who only lived into his late 30’s. But why is this painting impressive? Is it the lifelike lighting coming from the top right of the painting that brings so much depth and reality into this piece? Or maybe the way in which Caravaggio creates a pause in the Gospel story by highlighting a point of indecision from St. Matthew. The Gospel of Matthew says “As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.” This painting perhaps adds a break in time between Jesus commanding Matthew to “follow me” and Matthew following him, causing the Calling of Matthew to take shape as a real present moment, rather than a forgotten historical occurrence.
All of these aspects do make The Calling of St. Matthew quite impressive, but one key detail is more striking than the rest. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church was trying to create a response to the Reformation. Many people were leaving the Catholic Church to pursue the new Protestant way of practicing Christianity. So, at the council of Trent, the Catholic Church decided that they needed to make the Gospels more recognizable and real for the people of Rome and across the world. Their answer was nothing short of genius (this is saying a lot, as I despise the Catholic Church). They decided to compensate painters, such as Caravaggio, to paint scenes from the Bible in a way that would relate to the everyday man or woman. Caravaggio did something beautiful— in all of his works, Caravaggio would paint everyday people walking the streets of Rome into the story as the biblical characters. He believed that if someone saw the biblical characters in such a way, maybe they would stop and think about Jesus as a human, not a far off character in history.
Caravaggio was using art in a way that would glorify God through the beauty of His creation and His people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m doubtful that it’s necessary or good to depict Christ or other biblical characters as someone they are not, whether that’s a different race or gender. Jesus was a Jew, not a European, African, or Asian. It’s important that we think of and see biblical characters as they were, not as we want them to be. That being said, the beautiful thing about this painting and the many others that Caravaggio completed is that the objective was to create something innovative enough to pull the viewer in, and conservative enough to keep the truth of the message. The art of the time of the Renaissance was mostly intersecting with a value system— Christianity. And because Christianity is the foundation of objective truth, artists saw their canvases as an opportunity to draw out the truth in a way that could bring glory and wonder to the God who created us. This was the height of Christian art.
Now, fast forward 200 years. It’s 1889 and world-renowned painter, Vincent van Gogh, releases a new painting to the public: The Starry Night. This is one of Van Gogh’s most popular paintings, if not the most popular. Van Gogh depicts a scene from outside his window of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where he lived. But, unlike Caravaggio’s painting, Van Gogh’s piece is much dreamier and, honestly, eerie. Van Gogh uses a style of painting called post-impressionism, which is basically a style that breaks away from naturalism. Naturalism, as it sounds, is painting in a way that represents what is real and natural— a more objective painting, such as the Calling of St. Matthew.
While with naturalism you can usually make out the exact appearance, expressions and actions of the subjects, with post-impressionism, that objective reality begins to disappear. While you can still make out shapes and define what they are, such as the moon or the houses below and mountains in the background, things become just slightly less realistic, making the objective reality more subjective in art. This is a trend you’ll see through the centuries of art, as it is seen in Van Gogh’s work. And this actually has a lot to do with Van Gogh’s belief system. An excerpt on The Van Gogh Museum’s website states it clearly:
Van Gogh was certainly religious, although his beliefs did change with time. As the son of a minister, Van Gogh naturally had a Christian upbringing.
His father was a Protestant minister and belonged to a part of the church with a moderate, liberal perspective. Vincent initially wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, but soon realised that they had strongly differing beliefs. Instead of being borne out of doctrine, Vincent thought that belief should be founded in human emotions, and primarily the emotions of people from the lower social classes (workers and farmers).
Vincent ultimately came to see nature and human history as jointly symbolising ‘God’. Not a defined god, but ‘something up there’ – something that can’t be named. Actually, an extremely modern stance for the time.
Vincent van Gogh was teetering on the edge of atheism. While he did believe in “a god” he wouldn’t define that god, making the objective God of the past a more subjective god to Van Gogh. Do you see the parallel? Van Gogh’s beliefs directly impacted his art. His philosophy and theology were, like Caravaggio, depicted in his paintings, just in two entirely different ways. But Van Gogh’s increasing subjectivity all makes sense as Van Gogh was painting during the rise of Romanticism, a movement in art and literature highlighting subjectivity and the primacy of the individual that began in the 1700s. Once again, the philosophical framework of the time shaped the art, just in a more secular way.
This leads us to the 1900s. And while there were many painters in the 1900s such as (my personal favorite) Edward Hopper, there seems to be none as popular or influential as Jackson Pollock, who famously used the “drip technique” to “paint”. “Drip technique” seems too elegant a way to describe splattering paint on a canvas, but who am I to say? Art is subjective, right?
Pollock’s art has been sold for as much as $140 million. Below you can see the painting that sold for this price. It’s called no.5, 1948. I would love to explain what this painting is and what it represents. But, unfortunately, I cannot. And neither can Pollock, or anybody else. Because Pollock did not paint with an objective purpose as Caravaggio did in painting The Calling of St. Matthew or as Van Gogh did in painting The Starry Night. No, Pollock threw paint at a canvas and called it art. This “type” of art is called abstract expressionism, and is highly reliant on spontaneity, which is subjective. Can any physical action really be described as “spontaneous”? That is a question for another time.
You see, Pollock was not unique in his time. In our time, in fact, his paintings are an exact representation of what our culture calls postmodernism. This is a philosophy that states objectively that what we believe and truth itself can be relative and subjective in nature. Nothing is completely true for everyone, except of course, the definition of postmodernism. This painting is nothing because it represents nothing.
Today, our society is the same— nothing. Why? Because it holds to nothing that is real and objective and true. The history of art can teach us many things about ourselves and many things about our culture, but most importantly, it can teach us something about what we believe, or don’t believe. Caravaggio’s art is a clear and precise representation of what he believed. Through his painting, Caravaggio shows that the objective world is worth our contention and admiration, rather than our distortion and destruction. Van Gogh strays from the realism seen in Caravaggio’s work, and moves toward a distortion of the world in which he, the painter, picks and chooses what reality is and isn’t. Pollock brings what van Gogh started to a dramatic, but unrecognizable finish. He wipes the canvas of any meaning and direction, leaving the viewer just as helpless after they see his art as before. I have to assume that this is why Jackson Pollock essentially committed suicide by driving while under the influence and ultimately crashing. He had no meaning, no direction, and no reality. And those are ingredients for death.
Is there any hope then for art? The answer is simple. Yes. Looking through the history of art can teach us a valuable lesson regarding the importance of reality and the objective truth. Each painter who questioned the reality around them found themselves one step closer to oblivion and one step further from the beauty of truth. In a time such as now, where subjectivity and postmodern philosophy surrounds us in the arts, universities and even churches, we, Christians and people who believe in the objective truth found in the beautiful world around us, can show others, through art, what true beauty is. And ultimately, what true meaning is.
The canvas is empty, now start painting.
Andrew Schmitt is an entrepreneur and founder of the Optiv Network. He's started the Optiv Theology Podcast, Optiv Music Podcast, and the Dr. Scott Jensen Podcast (which consistently ranks in the Top 200 "Government" podcasts in the world). Andrew currently resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife, but calls Madison, Wisconsin home.