Art and Religion

Originally published in Futurismo, vol.II, no.23, 12 February 1933.

© Translation generously provided by Chris Adams (Estorick Collection) and was published in the exhibition catalog for Piety and Pragmatism (26 September – 23 December 2006, Estorick Collection, London).

Religion – understood not as a totality of rites observed by an individual or human society to render honour to a divinity, but as an abstraction of the soul from all that constitutes the vulgarity of life, and therefore as an ascension to higher spheres of the utmost spirituality – is clearly the most sublime concept our minds can conceive of.

And if art is the plastic, auditory or other expressive manifestation of our dreams, aspirations or the better tendencies of our spirit, it is natural that art and religion proceed side by side because of their shared essence, both being emanations of the divine element of ourselves.

They are the most logical expansions of humanity which, coming into contact with a nature larger and stronger than itself, seems to have a fear of being alone and therefore needs to know that there is someone or something to which it can run for protection, comfort and assistance: namely, a divinity. But one is unable to reach divinity by the usual routes of miserable mortals: one is only able to do so through an expansion of the soul. And thus art, being the most perfect, the most complete of these expansions, is the only means of joining the mortal and the eternal, the human and the divine.

Art is therefore an irreplaceable accessory to religion, particularly figurative art.

And it is logical that this is so. The man of elevated senses and deep culture is able to invoke his spiritual world through meditative concentration. However, this is unattainable for the rough, naïve and uncultured masses that constitute the principal nucleus of the followers of every religion. For this reason, it is absolutely necessary to render the invisible visible, make the abstract concrete, delineate the infinite and render the divine human.

Consequently, for every religion, iconography is the most important of all artistic manifestations. The primitive, the uncouth and the ignorant are unable to pray to that which does not have a precise form in their mind, and yet they have a natural and instinctive need to pray.

Thus an image of something concrete and tangible is presented to them – perhaps even a monster – and they are told: this is your god.

Throughout the centuries, in every religion, this phenomenon repeats itself ad nauseum. Yet what has value for today’s savages, or for the coarse men of antiquity and the Middle Ages, began to lose many of its strictly and vulgarly human concepts in the iconography of our Renaissance. Our painters in particular endowed their sacred images with a more intense sense of divine inspiration, aiming to transhumanise them as much as possible.

Perugino’s Madonnas, much more than those of Raphael, demonstrate this effort to give the human figure a divine quality.

Such artists therefore understood that it was no longer the case that sacred iconography had to be strictly based on ‘the human’. Luckily for art, this was also understood by the church leaders of the time.

But since then, what further progress has sacred art made in terms of transhumanisation? One could say none at all, if one did not wish to be too severe and talk of an actual regression.

And yet today – customs having been refined, the general level of culture having been raised and the sinister, mysterious force of superstition having disappeared – sacred art finds itself in the perfect position to explore its true function of representing the mysteries of the beyond.

But not in the sense – as it is still unfortunately often understood – of making the world of supreme forces conform to our very limited sensibilities, but rather of representing the abstract with clear abstraction, of expressing the divine on its own terms.

Therefore, nothing is more serious or more pressing than that dilemma posed to sacred art in the well-known Futurist manifesto:

‘Either renounce any ambitions to inspire the faithful, or submit to complete regeneration through the principles of synthesis, transfiguration, the dynamism of time-space interpenetration, the simultaneity of states of mind and the geometric splendour of the machine aesthetic.’

A Futurist ‘inferno’ has the ability to terrify us, whereas a traditional image of the same subject today makes us laugh; a circle of angels depicted in the vocabulary of Futurism contains the power to enrapture us, while a stereotypical, traditional representation now leaves us in the most glacial indifference.

And thus, when depicted with their customary iconography, the sweetest or most tragic mysteries of the Christian religion no longer arouse any sentiments of veneration, nor offer us any starting point for meditation. By contrast, Futurist representations may be able to reawaken in us a new sense of devotion and inspire a new desire for reflection. The same is true of images of the saints and episodes from their lives: why continue to belittle these, making the towering figure of these heroes of charity, penitence and martyrdom conform to that of common mortals? Why circumscribe their sublime actions within the limits of our trite everyday life?

Only Futurist painting can give to such characters and stories the new aspect necessary to reinvest them with their just value.

We shall not cite examples of such works here – of which there are an infinite number – but the truth of our assertion is evident.

Why then should Futurist sacred art be denied a place in the house of God? Because the Futurists are anticlerical? ‘Anticlerical’ is not the same thing by any means as ‘anti-religious’: one can be religious without endorsing clericalism – indeed, one can be religious without being Catholic.

And understanding religion in the manner that the Futurists do – that is, as a need for the spiritual expansion of the individual towards an unknown infinite – any effective realisation of divine mysteries is easy and possible.

Continuing along the old and now obsolete road of traditional painting is certainly not to the advantage of religion.

It is therefore time for those who can – and must – to abandon that rigid intransigence behind which they are tenaciously ranked with regards to Futurist sacred art.

Futur. [identity of author unknown, possibly Mino Somenzi]

Futurismo, vol.II, no.23, 12 February 1933

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