The Unity of Religion and Art

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The Unity of Religion and Art

Art and religion belong together by identities of Origin, Subject Matter, and Inner Experience. Religion and art were one and the same thing before either of them became consciously regarded as a distinct human interest. The principal subject matter of the world’s artistic treasures is religious. The experience of faith and the experience of beauty are in some measure identical.

In these three ways there is displayed the unity of religion and art. I am not here interested to elaborate them, but the numbers of religious leaders who have no interest in the arts, and the numbers of artists who have no participation in the life of definite religion need all to be made aware of these facts.

The beginnings of religion and of art alike lie far back and hidden in the immemorial life of primitive man. In the earliest historic times they were interwoven and no one can say which was first, for they were not two, but one. The painted stick or bunch of feathers which as a fetish was utilized for its magical powers was also in some sense a work of art. The dances and pantomimes of early tribal life were attempts at the magical control of nature or nature divinities. Exercises in frenzy were both religious and artistic, primitive forms of ritual, primitive forms of drama. “This common emotional factor it is that makes art and ritual in their beginnings well-nigh indistinguishable.”

Religion has been historically the great fountain source of art, and the art of worship the mother of all arts. “Ritual and art have, in emotion towards life, a common root, and primitive art develops emotionally, at least in the case of drama, straight out of ritual.”

It is sufficient for our purpose to accept the judgment of anthropologists that in one way or another most of the arts–music, dancing, sculpture, poetry, drama, architecture –were developed out of exercises and objects originally devised for the magical control of divinities, the celebration of seasonal feasts or the production of ecstasy for its own sake or for power in war–all exercises of primitive religion.

“Art will then never arise and develop among men unless it has a foundation in religion. Art absolutely profane in origin, art born to satisfy the aesthetic taste of the spectator, art which seeks for expressiveness rather than for the material utility of its products, even if this be a spiritual utility, is inconceivable in human history and has absolutely never existed.” *

This is perhaps a too sweeping claim, but something very like it is true. An adequate discussion of it would involve a long study not enough pertinent to our present work to make. It is difficult for us with our reflective and analytical habits of mind to throw back our imaginations into the early time when life was just life, single and undivided, without religion or art or any other category as such. It is not impossible that such a unity of experience is a goal ahead of us as well as a forgotten history behind us.

The second consideration in noting the unity of religion and art is the fact that in all human history the principal subject matter of the arts has been religious. “All the art of the human race is essentially religious art; from the Chaldean to the Egyptian, from the Mycenaean to the Greek, from the Assyrian to the pre-Buddhistic Chinese, from the Mexican to the Peruvian, there is no exception.”

The three things which most attract Americans to cross the sea in search of the riches of the old world are the Greek temples and statues, Italian paintings, and Gothic architecture. With a very few exceptions all of these incomparable treasures were created by religion. The histories of the older oriental empires and of Egypt display the same facts. Literary art also, considering the Greek dramas, Dante, and Milton, at its high points if not at its lower, has been chiefly religious.

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