Review: Religious Art

Art Institute

It is time once again for a review of some excellent exhibits at Art Institute Chicago!  These shows are related in their connection to Catholicism.  There is A Voyage to South America: Andean Art in the Spanish Empire, which runs through February 21, 2016; and Spreading Devotion: Japanese and European Religious Prints, which runs through June 21, 2015.

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The “Voyage to South America” captures a moment — or a vision, really — in time, when the Spanish government was ruling the Andes region.  The art on display is fascinating, because it depicts not only elements of the Spanish religion, Catholicism, but also impressions of the local Incan religion.  It’s a little jarring to see Mary with Saints next to a depiction of a bloody Incan ritual.

The high point for me — literally and figuratively — was the painting you see at the right.  I would estimate the piece to have been at least eight feet tall.  The sheer Incredible Madonnasize of Mary and her Infant were impressive, to say the least.  Typical of the Cuzco School, the figures were relatively flat-looking, with generous gold leaf adorning their robes.  The indications of 3-D perspective in Mary’s ornate pedestal seem to contradict her robes, which look more like a triangular screen than a cone.  The pattern on the robes reinforce its flatness, not bending at all around the contours of the wearers’ bodies.  It is so regular, it might have been stenciled on.

This piece gives me lots of ideas, one of which I am currently employing in my collage work.  I am using paper with a regular pattern to indicate clothing, making no attempt to fool anyone into thinking the garments are three-dimensional.  The major inspiration I took away from the Art Institute piece, however, is more difficult to manifest: I would love to produce an Icon this tall!

The other exhibit I enjoyed was all about “Spreading Devotion” — specifically, the use in Spreading Devotion signBuddhism and Catholicism of printmaking to disseminate religious ideas to a largely illiterate public.  One highlight of the exhibit had little to do, however, with illiteracy: a page from the Guttenberg Bible.  There’s something I will likely never see again in my lifetime!

But the real attraction were the icons and illustrations of saints and deities.  It was a clever idea to pair the prints from two distinct cultures, because there is plenty of cross-over.  A serene Buddha with a halo looks similar to a Madonna with a halo, as you can see in the sign on the right.

That being said, the differences were also obvious.  The Buddhist prints were made with the woodcut method, often resulting in strong, blocky lines.  Many of the Catholic prints, on the other hand, were fashioned using an etching technique, so there was fine linework and crosshatching.  Maybe it’s my love of everything pre-Classical, but I would have liked to see more of the woodcut technique applied to the Catholic images.  There were a couple of examples of German woodcuts in the exhibit, and their “primitive” appearance had a strange kind of power over me.  They represented everything that is weird and otherwordly about religion.