Making Sense of Christian Art and Architecture by Heather Thornton McRae, Thames and Hudson, £9.95
What makes Christianity unique in the realm of religion and culture is the profusion of great art and buildings it has directly inspired. Discarding the Jewish understanding of the Second Commandment which negates the use of graven images, Christianity has shown that art and religion can not only coexist but also illuminate each other.
Of course, some of the greatest art comes out of this wellspring, be it Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling or the finely illuminated manuscripts of a medieval book of hours. As McRae notes in her introduction to this new edition, it was Pope Gregory the Great who saw that in an age of declining literacy, art could “instruct the minds of the ignorant”.
McRae’s book charts all the myriad forms of Christian art and is neatly divided into thematic (rather than chronological) segments. As McRae points out, “informing all the forms of Christian art and architecture is the theme of death” but never has it been represented in such glory or with such grace.
The book is logically laid out, with each artwork or building depicted on one page and explanatory notes facing it. Among the many masterpieces encountered here are Florence’s Duomo, the spider-like delicacy of Hagia Sophia, the proud onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow and the fantastical upthrust of Mont Saint-Michel.
The development of painting can be traced from early icons such as the glorious image of Christ Pantocrator through the sublime reaches of Fra Angelico to the dark bottomlands of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and Van Gogh’s version of The Good Samaritan – all wayward brushstrokes, thick impasto and deep yearning.
I particularly liked the section on tombs and memorials, an oft-forgotten but integral part of Christian art, with the Catacombs of San Callisto and the stately stained-glass Last Judgment at Chartres being particular stand-outs.
This is a beautifully illustrated and informative book that brilliantly sums up 2,000 years of tradition in little more than 200 pages.
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