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Book Review: Ars Sacra: Christian Art in the Western World by Rolf Toman (Editor), Achim Bednorz (Photographer)

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“Sure to become the standard work on Christian art, architecture, and culture,” the publishers predict in the press release, and this isn’t hyperbole. Ars Sacra is a massive tome, weighing 13 kg (over 20 lbs), and spanning some 800 pages and nearly two millennia of history. You could hardly find more culturally relevant reading for the long Easter weekend.

The large format — 49.5 x 36.8 x 13.3 cm, or about 20 x 15 inches per page — allows for photographic detail one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. The colours are incredibly vivid, and the overall quality attests to the talent of the photographer, and willingness of publishers not to skimp on materials or printing quality. The sheer length of such a large-format book is impressive. One imagines they took on the task of not leaving anything out, and simply committed to making the book as big as it needed to be.

The 1000 full-colour photographs, including a number of two-page spreads, and a handful of fold-outs, are the major selling point of this book, of course, but the text puts it all in context. For a long-time history buff with only a haphazard understanding of art or architecture, Ars Sacra provides a comprehensive resource for filling in the gaps.

The book covers everything from the late Roman and Byzantine empires, through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment and Romantic eras, and finally the modern age — and all the artistic movements that went along with them. The earliest works date from the early third century, and the latest date from 2010. The text in each section (which range from 50 to over 100 pages each) is written by an expert specializing in the art and architecture of the period.

It’s amazing how much you can learn from a single stone relief, fresco, or woodcut. The various works reflect culture and theological beliefs of the time, and sometimes argue for a particular point of view on what was a controversial topic. In the Early Middle Ages we see historical figures, from emperors to local noblemen, depicted in murals or carvings with saints or Christ. A brilliant bit of visual propaganda strengthened and clarified the divine right of the ruler. We later see the not-quite-reverse happening, with later emperors depicted as subtly subservient to the Pope, who is negotiating secular political power for his own office.

One of my favourite sections was on the European Romanesque movement, between 1000-1250 AD, where death and disease led to clarification and speculation on the afterlife, and especially on judgment. The tympanum (above the main entryway) was a major stage for this drama, and the Cathedral of Lazarus in Autun features at its front doors a vivid depiction of the weighing of souls, with a demon piling on the sins on one side of the scale, and an angel desperately pushing down on the other side, adding his weight to the miserable soul’s precious few good deeds.

 


 

Later in the Gothic period we see more of this battle between good and evil, but with a somewhat more optimistic view. There is somewhat less focus on the demons scrabbling after one’s soul, and somewhat more on the valiant protectors of it.

It’s worth noting that, even if you were planning on a major European trip to see some of the great Gothic cathedrals, renaissance art, and ancient relics, there are things in this book that you may find difficult or impossible to see in person. Some of the close-up photos are of important, but largely inaccessible works, in poorly lit alcoves, or high up a a cathedral’s towering walls.

About J.J.S. Boyce