Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Democracy and Art: The Catholic Church?

I listened to an interview on the John Batchelor show with Victoria Coates about her book David's Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art. Batchelor and Coates were discussing her book in the context of the recent event in Rome when the authorities hid the nude sculptures on the Capitoline Hill to avoid offending the President of Iran.

The book's premise, according to the publisher, Encounter Books, is:

Throughout western history, the societies that have made the greatest contributions to the spread of freedom have created iconic works of art to celebrate their achievements. Yet despite the enduring appeal of works from the Parthenon to Michelangelo’s David to Picasso’s Guernica, histories of both art and democracy have ignored this phenomenon. Millions have admired the works of art covered in this book but relatively few know why they were commissioned, what was happening in the culture that produced them, and what they were meant to achieve. Even scholars who have worked on these objects for decades often miss the big picture as these works have been traditionally studied in isolation.

In David’s Sling, Victoria C. G. Coates integrates the pursuits of creative excellence and human freedom to bring a fresh, new perspective into both lines of inquiry. David’s Sling places into context ten canonical works of art executed to commemorate the successes of free societies that exerted political and economic influence far beyond what might have been expected of them. The book fuses political and art history with a judiciously-applied dose of creative reconstruction to craft a lively narrative around each key work of art and the free system that inspired it. David’s Sling tells their stories.

As I heard them discuss the book, I noticed a few comments: Batchelor compares Friar Savonarola of Florence to the President of Iran; Coates mentions that Napoleon Bonaparte betrayed the ideals of the French Revolution. Those comments seemed to betray a rather simplistic view of history. What were the ideals of the French Revolution? The Terror and the destruction of the Catholic Church? The life and career of Savonarola was much more complicated than Batchelor's quip. You can hear the podcast here.

It made me wonder how she regards the Catholic Church, the greatest patron of the arts in the medieval and Renaissance eras: painting, sculpture, architecture, and music, etc., which has never been a political democracy. When they discuss the great statue of David as a symbol of freedom against the rule of the Medici, they conclude that Michelangelo leaves Florence because he believes the republic has been destroyed by the Medici family and lives in Rome. Rome was not a republic; Rome and the Papal States were ruled by the pope as a secular monarch (even Medici popes!): how does this prove either Michelangelo's devotion to democracy or that democracy and free societies are necessary for creating great art?

It made me think of ten great works of art inspired by one of the least politically democratic organizations in world history, the Catholic Church:

1. St. Peter's Basilica (various)
2. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo)
3. The Last Judgment (Michelangelo)
4. Statuary for the tomb of Pope Julius, including the Moses (Michelangelo)
5. The School of Athens by Raphael (The Vatican's Stanza della Segnatura)
6. The Disputation of the Sacrament, also by Raphael (The Vatican's Stanza della Segnatura)
7. The Transfiguration (Raphael)
8. The Baldachin in St. Peter's Basilica (Bernini)
9. The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila (Bernini)
10. Sant'Andrea al Quirinale, Jesuit Church (Bernini)

And this is just from one period, the Renaissance, in Rome--not to mention the glories of High Gothic in France (the Notre Dames of Paris, Chartres, etc)--and does not consider music (Victoria, Palestrina, etc) in Renaissance Rome at all. The popes and bishops who commissioned great works of art and patronized great artists might be surprised that they should have been living in free democratic societies to encourage such masterpieces. I don't think that her thesis is that only free democratic societies create great works of art to celebrate their achievements; the Catholic Church and Catholic artists have created great works of art to celebrate the life of Our Savior and the truth of His teaching, so that's a very different source of inspiration and goal of creation. But I wonder.

No comments:

Post a Comment