There are two aspects of life that no one can ever seem to avoid: art and religion. Both art and religion are a part of everyday life, even if a person is not particularly religious or artistic. Ever since the start of human existence, art has always served as a means for people to express themselves. Similarly, religion is inescapable. Both art and religion are used to bring people together in unity. In St. Louis, the Saint Louis Art Museum greatly displays the undeniable connection between art and religion. Located in the only surviving building from the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (and note the statue of St. Louis XII in front of the main entrance) SLAM features exhibits dedicated to the art of many different religions throughout the world. This museum, in the heart of St. Louis's Forest Park, provides people with a way to think about art in a religious context, and one not only composed of their own religion, but many others. (Note the
The piece, titled “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” was done by an artist named John McCrady in 1937. McCrady’s paintings are mainly of African-American people and their relationship with God. While describing his work, he said “I paint the human element of the God-and-man relationship, and this would be according to the New Testament” (Howell 43).
The song, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” has long been known for its roots in African American history. As historians believe, the song was used by slaves, hoping for salvation. For the slaves, salvation could have meant freedom. However, in the context of this painting, salvation is likely going to heaven upon death.
Above the house is a dark, cloudy sky. This gives the painting a dark ambiance. However, there is a beam of heavenly light shining through the clouds. In Christian art, light is typically symbolic of Christ (Ferguson 56). Additionally, there seems to be a conflict between the angels and the devil occurring in the sky. Both the contrast between the darkness and light in the sky, and between the devil and the angels portray the same message: there is always hope when times get tough.
This painting is relevant to St. Louis because of our history with slavery and other racial conflicts. In the late 1790s, one-third of St. Louis’s residents were slaves (O’Niel). Even in present day, St. Louis is known for an unstable racial climate ever since the Ferguson protests and riots that began in August 2014. While the people in the painting may not be slaves, it was definitely painted in a time when African-American were severely suffering. The hint of suffering in the painting allows for a connection to be made to St. Louis.
This piece, created in 1741 by a famous artist named Corrado Giaquinto, is one of the early adaptations of theology and is a very historic piece which is located in our own Saint Louis Art Museum. While viewing this painting in person, it’s beauty in design and intricacy is unmistakable. The purpose of this painting was for the presentation of a finished sketch to Pope Benedict XIV (1675-1758) for approval so that it could be painted on the ceiling of the famous Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. From first glance this painting depicts a transition from what seems to be darkness to light. The bottom of the painting seems to depict hell but in a way that shows what seems to be an angel or a holy person with a triumphant fist in the face of the evil. Upon closer inspection and research, I realized that the meaning of the painting was much deeper than what my first observations were.
The painting depicts a Christian victory while tying itself to St.Helena and her son Constantine, the first Christian emperor. In the image St.Helena is kneeling while presenting her son to the Virgin Mary. Virgin Mary, as many of us know, is the woman who gave birth to Jesus and is one of the most well known figures in all of Christian doctrine. In this painting Jesus is standing before God the Father and the Holy Spirit. The bottom portion of the painting shows St. Michael the Archangel “defeating a group of heretics and toppling Lucifer from his throne”(Bridgeman).
The artist of this piece, Corrado Giaquinto, quickly rose to fame after this finished sketch was approved and painted on the ceiling of the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. The piece has been located in the Saint Louis Art Museum since its purchase by the museum in 1963. Just recently in 2015, the painting won an award during the Art in Bloom showcase (pictured above) for Best Traditional Design and People’s Choice (Telegraph).
The relation that this painting has to the city of Saint Louis is due to the city’s rich Catholic history. Modern statistics show that 20.36% of the city’s population identifies itself with being Catholic (Sperlings). Constantine, one of the focal points of the painting is one of the most influential rulers in Christian history. Constantine’s rich history in Catholicism and Christianity is due to his being a Roman Emperor who allowed his empire to flourish all while spreading the faith across new lands. Later on in his reign he announced that he would be converting to Christianity. This prompted his ruling that Christianity would have to be accepted in all his land. Being such a transcending and reform seeking ruler built his legacy to astronomical heights and it’s no wonder why his presence in paintings is still something that brings people’s attention.
While SLAM consists of numerous paintings, masterful statues and sculptures come to life within the walls as well. They tell their story through vivid detail and pristine craftsmanship. Among these sculptures is one of St. Michael, the Archangel. This German sculpture was crafted in the 18th century and displays the Archangel stepping upon a horned and hairy Lucifer. In the Christian Bible, St. Michael is known as the leader of all Angels in the army of God, and responsible for protecting God’s people from Lucifer. Catholic Online says, “St. Michael has four main responsibilities or offices, as we know from scripture and Christian tradition”.
The first is to combat Satan.
The second is to escort the faithful to heaven at their hour of death.
The third is to be a champion of all Christians, and the Church itself.
And the fourth is to call men from life on Earth to their heavenly judgment.
The sculpture manifests the sense of conquering evil with “good.” In addition to this sculpture, St. Michael is honored through the St. Michael the Archangel Church in Shrewsbury. With St. Louis’ strong ties to Catholicism, St. Michael fits perfectly into the religious-art category.
St. Louis is filled with rich traces of religion and art. At the Saint Louis Art Museum, these two categories come together to form a unique visual representation that demonstrates the heart and soul of the city. When walking through the art museum, one can enjoy works of art such as “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “St. Helena and the Emperor Constantine Presented to the Holy Trinity by the Virgin Mary,” the statue of St. Michael, and numerous more works of religious art. Each artwork tells a part of theological history, and conveys the fragmentation of religious beliefs. Art and religion are two separate ideas in themselves, however, when composed of each other, it creates something truly beautiful.
Researched and written by Nedim Hodciz, Ashleigh Montgomery, and Dalton Verret.
Ferguson, George Wells. Signs and symbols in Christian art. London: Oxford U Press, 1961. Print.
Howell, Elmo. Mississippi Scenes: Notes on Literature and History. Memphis, TN: E. Howell, 1992. Print.
Meer, Frederik Van Der. Early Christian Art. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1967. Print.
O'Neil, Tim. "Look Back 250 • Slavery was a fact of life in St. Louis from the beginning." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. N.p., 17 May 2014. Web. 14 May 2017.
Online, Catholic. "St. Michael The Archangel - Saints & Angels - Catholic Online". Catholic Online. N.p., 2017. Web. 21 Apr. 2017.
Saunders, George R. Culture and Christianity. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Print.
Visit St. Louis Art Museum. Self-Guided Tour. Ashleigh Montgomery, Nedim Hodzic, Dalton Verret. March 26, 2017.
Telegraph, The. "Art in Bloom Returns to the Saint Louis Art Museum." The Telegraph. n.d. Web. 04 May 2017.
"St. Helena and the Emperor Constantine Presented to the Holy Trinity by the Virgin Mary, 1741–42 (oil on Canvas)." Bridgeman Images. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2017.