When we think of art in terms of religion, especially Christianity, we usually think of it as a means of glorifying either the religion or the history of the religion. From the crucifixion to the ascension most of the highlights of the faith have been captured on canvas or carved in stone. In his book from Polity Books, Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity, the German born Muslim writer Navid Kermani, looks at the truths he perceives hidden behind the glory.
Living in Cologne Germany as he does, and the omnipotence of its massive cathedral, it would be hard for anyone not to realize the role art has to play in Christianity. From bas reliefs and frescos adorning church walls to some of the most revered masterpieces of Western European visual arts, Christianity has inspired painters from the earliest days of the religion to modern times. However, what appears wondrous to the faithful, might not look the same to the outsider.
Kermani takes us on a tour of art galleries and churches to look at the known and the lesser known works of depicting scenes from the history of Christianity and offers his own view of what he is witnessing. Whether it is Sandro Botticelli’s (1445-1510) Christ Carrying The Cross, Rembrandt’s The Raising of Lazarus, or any other number of works scattered throughout Europe he helps us look at these works in ways we probably never would have otherwise.
Conditioned by education and belief we are content with seeing these images at face value. We don’t question the fact that so many of the images contain scenes of unimaginable pain disguised as glory. Do we ever ask ourselves when looking at a picture of the crucifixion or the martyrdom of a saint why does this painting glorify suffering and pain? Or in contrast, do we ever look at a painting of Jesus and wonder at his almost feminine beauty?
As an example, Kermani’s examination of the above mentioned Botticelli depiction of Christ carrying his cross to the crucifixion leads him into not only thoughts on Christ’s role in Islam, and yes he is considered a prophet in that faith, but the potential influences of Persian art on the artist. We also learn from his contemplation on the role Jesus has in Sufism, the mystical/poetic stream of Islam, and how they identify him as one of the great exemplifiers of love in terms of the divine. (Sufi poetry often uses the love between humans as an allegory for expressing love of the divine).
While the ideas and thoughts raised by Kermani are anything but simple, he does his best to keep his language as straightforward as possible. This is not some academic tome; it is the honest expression of ideas and emotion by a very intelligent and articulate individual. Obviously it’s not an easy read, and does require some thought on the part of the reader, however he has taken what is a complex subject and rendered into language both accessible and interesting.
He makes no bones about the thoughts expressed in the book being his personal opinions, but they are opinions based on intelligent observation and steeped in research and an understanding of both art and cultural history. Unlike the commentators we’re used to hearing from who express their opinions as if they were facts carved in stone, Kermani lets us know he’s just one person from a specific background expressing his own thoughts.
Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity is a book that should be read by anyone with any interest in art history, specifically Christian art. The proof copy I reviewed only contained black and white reproductions of the paintings Kermani talks about, but rest assured the final copy available to the public has them all in full colour so you can properly appreciate what he’s talking about.