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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 1997
  • Online publication date: May 2006

6 - Christ and the cultures: Christianity and the arts


In the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna hangs one of the most arresting of sixteenth-century paintings, Pieter Bruegel's The Tower of Babel. It is the kind of work which repays diligent attention; not least because many of the pivotal aspects of the complex interaction between Christianity and the arts will be brought to the surface. To begin with the obvious, the painting reminds us that for large tracts of the church's history there has been a close intertwining of Christian faith and artistic practice. There have of course been times when the church's stance towards the arts has been marked by uncertainty and suspicion, but more often than not the arts have played a crucial role in her life and mission. More specifically, Christian doctrine has profoundly affected the form, content and development of the arts. (Despite the disdain in some quarters for treating the artist's circumstances as aesthetically significant, it would be hard to interpret Bruegel's output without any reference to the doctrinal traditions he espoused.) And this has worked in the opposite direction also: the arts have frequently had a decisive impact on the shape of Christian belief. In Bruegel's age, many received their doctrinal tutoring chiefly through one or more of the arts.