HEARERS OF THE WORD: The arts reveal the spirit of an age

I recently saw a movie about the life of painter Jackson Pollock. It’s very good and inspires an appreciation for how the arts capture the spirit of an age as well as its attendant interpretive biases.
My friend is a fan of Salvador Dali, the artist whose dreamlike images – much like some of Pollock’s, I’ve often thought – are the visual expression of the emerging science of psychoanalysis and its emphasis on the unconscious. Dali captured brilliantly the intellectual climate of the early 20th Century.
Sometimes artists are so genius they anticipate – at times, by centuries -subsequent developments in philosophy and theology.
It’s easy to love the compositional excellence – if not the pietism – of Fra Angelico, but no painter ever expressed so well theology in the 21st Century as Bruegel the Elder.
The Dali fan once told me I have a dark streak and I think he’s right because my favorite of Bruegel’s works is “The Triumph of Death,” painted in 1562. Like most of Bruegel’s work the composition is dizzying, with chaos raging from the foreground to the horizon. There’s a hellish confusion about the piece, with dogs feeding on corpses, and skeletons running amok with sickles. When I look at it I see the two World Wars, AIDS, “megadeath” and so many atrocities that came centuries after this painting.
Another of my favorites from Bruegel is “The Road to Calvary.” This piece could easily have been painted last week so well does it express the dilemma of religion in the modern world.
There’s a sea of humanity in the painting and everyone is going about their own business. People in clothing from different historical periods and different parts of the world are engaging in commerce and arguing with each other. Almost unnoticed, Jesus carries his cross through the throng toward Golgatha.
Finally, there’s “The Slaughter of the Innocents,” a reference on Matt. 2: 13-23 where Herod, in his demonic paranoia, orders the deaths of thousands of children.
I feel cold when I look at this painting – the cavalrymen rounding up peasants, the busted kegs spilling into the frozen ponds, the man on his knees, begging for his family’s life.
Breugel seldom makes it clear what’s happening in his paintings. The sense comes not from explicit representation but from the looks on people’s faces, from the movement of the crowd, from the collective disquietude that practically cries out from the canvas.
Ours is a world that has, in many ways, become disjointed. The pieties that once warmed us have been yanked mercilessly away and we’re left to shiver in the winds of relativism.
The works of our great artists have always revealed the deepest truths about us. Bruegel shows that theology is a radically human undertaking. Anything theology claims is always less true than more true. It is an approximation, a best, educated guess, a work of art which breaks open a symbolic dimension of truth. We don’t often see these things well in a technological world.
If we look closely at Bruegel’s canvases, in a very real sense, we are shivering peasants. We are milling about, ignoring the cross-bearer, falling on our knees in the snow, begging to be spared.

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.om

Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

Click video to hear audio