A blog about Belgian culture in London. A blog about the arts in London, Brussels and Milan, from a Belgian point of view.

Posts tagged Issenheim altarpiece

In art there are a few things which I am slightly obsessed about. In music it’s Mozart’s Requiem, in architecture art deco (think Villa Necchi-Campiglio in Milan, think Palais Stoclet in Brussels). Another of my pet crazes is sacred, or religious, art.

I particularly like the works of the Early Netherlandish (aka “Flemish primitives”) painters. I love the aesthetics and the level of details that can be found in these.

Ghent Altarpiece Mystic Lamb Van Eyck

Ghent Altarpiece or “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” – Van Eyck

That’s the Van Eyck brothers’ “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb“, which is on display in Saint Bavo cathedral in Ghent: hours and hours of delightful observation guaranteed.

Problem: most of these Early Netherlandish paintings depict biblical topics. And it is not only Early Netherlandish sacred art that I like. I am equally enthused by some other annunciations, crucifixions, etc, such as Fra Angelico‘s San Marco paintings or the Issenheim Altarpiece.

Issenheim altarpiece - Matthias Grünewald

Issenheim altarpiece – Matthias Grünewald

Matthias Grünewald’s altarpiece is one of the most powerful things I have ever seen. I was 15. I was on a ski holiday in the French Vosges (the poor’s Alps) with my family; there was no snow; we resorted to visiting the surrounding area. Fifteen years later, I still remember vividly how shocked I was by this work. Should you ever find yourself in Colmar, be sure to pay a visit to the Unterlinden Museum, where it is displayed.

Why is that a “problem”? Aside from the fact that it’s not particularly cool to like sacred art – it’s much more so to be into the other “s” art, namely, Street Art – I am myself not very religious. So my love of religious paintings made me a little uncomfortable. Why should I be so strongly attracted to them, when I don’t really believe in the stories they tell?

That’s where Alain de Botton comes in. Good old Alain: he endeavours to help you out in all areas of your life – architecture, status, travel and now, religion. The main point of his latest book, “Religion for Atheists“, is that the supernatural claims of religion are entirely false — but that religion still has some very important things to teach the secular world.

One of his chapters is entirely devoted to art. While I will not go into details (read the book!), he basically says it’s alright to like religious art, even when you consider yourself a non-believer. Amongst others, he argues that “Christianity recognizes the capacity of the best art to give shape to pain and thereby to attenuate the worst of our feelings of paranoia and isolation.”

Thank you for ridding me of my complexes, Mr de Botton: I feel I can now indulge in as many “Virgin and Child” and “Descent from the Cross” as I like.

A Bonus
for those of you who made it until the end of this post: some “cheeky” religious art…

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is a baroque sculpture in the Santa Maria della Vittoria church in Rome. You can read about some interesting interpretations of Bernini’s work on Wikipedia.

Ecstasy of Saint Theresa - Bernini

Ecstasy of Saint Theresa – Bernini

I will not comment for myself, as I have yet to see the sculpture…