Art tends to reflect more than the individual feelings, thoughts, and even inspirations of the artists. Art is always to some extent a product of its time and place, just as is the artist, so cultural and social influences must play a role in the creative process. This is evident in a great deal of interpretive art through the ages, and particularly in terms of those artists who have turned to the Bible and religion for their inspiration. More precisely, the immense shifts in Christianity during the Reformation gave rise to profoundly different artistic perspectives, as the more intent Catholicism of the Old World stood in contrast to the new, Protestant views and practices of the faith. What can be seen are extraordinarily different ideas, each devout it its way, reflected in approaches to similar subjects.
Comparing El Greco’s The Agony in the Garden to Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son, for example, reveals how the different modes of worship are powerfully presented within the religious scenes presented. The Spanish El Greco was working within an environment as fiercely and completely Catholic as may be conceived: Spain. He lived, in fact, during the era when Spain was the champion of Catholicism against the perceived heresy of the Protestant movement sweeping through Europe in the 16th century, and his painting of Christ very much embodies the intensity of Catholic worship (Brown 78). The work is by no means strictly classical in the academic sense; there is always, in fact, a quality of the surreal in El Greco’s art, as he experiments with landscapes and even the dimensions of the human form. The scene of The Agony in the Garden is exaggerated, certainly. There is little sense of a garden, in fact, as Christ’s appeal to the angel seems to occur on an alien landscape. This, however, does not draw from the power of the moment as representing the Biblical event in a literal way. At this time Christ is tortured by the knowledge of what is to come, and the face of El Greco’s Jesus is one not so much pained as in terrible suspense. He is asking if there is no other way to do God’s will, and the urgency and meaning of the issue is blatantly there on his expression. El Greco, then, devout Catholic working in the implacably Catholic Spain, gives a Christ fully in keeping with the Biblical account. If the artist takes liberties with a fantastic landscape, he is absolutely true to the Catholic intensity.
Conversely, Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son very much represents the more measured and less passionate interpretation of scripture associated with Protestantism of the northern nations (Brown, G. B. 34). In the painting the son is indeed being received home lovingly, but there is a serenity about the work that is distinctly different from any Catholic interpretation. It is a “quiet” scene; the son kneels, the father comforts him, and the onlookers take in the moment with absolute calm. By Catholic standards, this is virtually a revolutionary approach. Everything is humble in the painting, and this in itself seems to denounce Catholic excess. It is as though Rembrandt is reinforcing Protestant feeling by deliberately asserting that any scene of faith is simple and unadorned, and that overt displays of passion have no place in a true understanding of Christianity. This effect is so pronounced, in fact, that the image may well be any in which a young man returns and is comforted, and for any reason. As El Greco then celebrates the passionately Catholic adherence to Church doctrine as transcendent, the Protestant Rembrandt composes a serene statement emphasizing a simple and touching human encounter.
Similar contrasts mark Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa and The Milkmaid by Vermeer. The sculpture is both classical and perfectly representative of an ideal of Catholic art. Everything regarding the figures of the angel and the saint is powerfully expressive of a rapturous moment. Theresa is seemingly in a trance, yet aware of the encounter; her face betrays a kind of stupefaction or disbelief. The angel is true to the account of her visions as recorded by Teresa, and this greatly reflects the core of Catholic belief Bernini sets out to capture. Teresa’s angel was beautiful, with a fire seemingly of flame, and he pierced her with his spear, causing unbearable joy and pain (Annenberg Learner). This is precisely the Catholic interpretation of scripture so reviled by the Protestants, in that it renders faith into a magical experience. That magical, other-worldly experience is the essence of Bernini’s sculpture.
Nothing could be more distanced from this than Vermeer’s The Milkmaid. The painting is of course not overtly based on any Christian theme, yet a simple sense of Christian piety infuses the scene. The woman is merely pouring milk into a basin by a loaf of bread, yet the light striking her from the window, along with the peaceful expression on her face, create an impression of goodness that is Christian (Metropolitan Museum). As simple as the painting is then, it is actually a kind of celebration of Protestant theology. It emphasizes the most basic acts and beings of humanity in a completely real and unadorned setting, and this is never the approach of the Catholic artists. El Greco, Rembrandt, Bernini, and Vermeer then very much illustrate how art of the eras profoundly reflects the striking contrasts between Catholic and Protestant ideas of Christianity.
- Annenberg Learner. The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. 2013. Web.
- Brown, G. B. Rembrandt: A Study of His Life and Work. New York: Scribner’s, 1907. Print.
- Brown, J. Painting in Spain:1500-1700. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. Print.
- Metropolitan Museum. Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) and The Milkmaid. 2014. Web.