Maya Tessler

Throughout history, traditional ideals of the Christian God have been altered by other forms of worship, or disregarded for personal forms of worship and expression. These are unconventional gods. There is a long tradition of hidden pagan gods in Catholic tradition - look at Easter, based on the worship of the goddess Eostre, who symbolized sun, spring, and rebirth (much like Jesus's Resurrection.) Another example is All Saints Day, which allowed pagan gods and goddesses to be celebrated for many years. There is also a long tradition of individualism in religion; Socrates and Leonardo da Vinci were persecuted in their own times for being theists rather than believing in the dogma and specific ideas of the established religion, and in Christian churches anyone who professed an individual relationship with God was tried as a heretic (think Anne Hutchinson.) On a larger scale, the Protestant Reformation was a yearning towards a more personal, less corrupt connection with God. Seeking a God is hard. Faith in times of trial is hard. Changing social practices and new cultural influences often change faiths, and that too is hard. These hardships have produced some really meaningful art. In this modern age of accessible documents and records, it is very easy for people to discover their own truths, to find their own path. However, for much of human history, defying dogma was a great leap of faith and courage. The works of art in this essay are meaningful for their craftsmanship, but more importantly, in medieval churches, in Peruvian cathedrals, in Unitarian Universalist congregations, in the art of Victorian aesthetics, and the great temples of Half Dome and Snake River Basin, these works of art are unique and courageous expressions of faith in different Gods.

Medieval Expressions

Green Man carvings are hidden in churches across Europe. This is because medieval Europeans converted to Christianity, but still observed pagan rites, like Beltane, offerings for local Folk and spirits, and Samhain and Solstice vigils, while also still using many different kinds of banned amulets and herbwife remedies. Green man was often invoked for fertility, good harvest, and spring solstice festivals, but was also feared for his power, nature. Green Man can also be connected to the Eastern Kirtimukha and other carvings of foliate beasts. (5) Christian leaders took a looser attitude towards images such as these until the Catholic Counter-Reformation and the iconoclastic movement, when many ‘false idols’ were banned or destroyed. (7)

Green Man is found on stonework in Exeter Cathedral, Battenburg Cathedral, Winchester Cathedral (Hampshire), then north porch of the Chartres Cathedral, Chester Cathedral (Cheshire), and Bamberg Cathedral (Germany), as well as in many smaller parish chapels.

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Peruvian Syncretism

In the main cathedral of Cusco, Perú, there are several examples of syncretism and subversion. In a painting of the Last Supper in the right refectory, painted by an indigenous member of the Cusco School, every figure is fair-skinned, except Judas. He is copper-skinned, and was probably painted by the indigenous artist as a threat. While the white patrons saw his darker skin as a ‘lesser race’ knowing their place (as Judas, the unworthy), to the indigenous people the Judas was a symbol of revolution, and subversion of white gods.

Also in the Cusco Cathedral is a chariot used to carry a figure of the Virgin Mary in the Festival of Corpus Christi. While the chariot has traditional Catholic imagery, the use of silver and gold, and sun and moon imagery on the sides represent the Incan gods, and may be an intentional echo of the Festival of the Sun Chariot, also held in Cusco before it was banned by Catholic priests. (1)

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Victorian Aestheticism

Aestheticism was a Victorian art movement which used principles of art and balance to advocate for a utopian society. Many of its members advocated a “Religion of Beauty” which served to make rationalism and agnosticism acceptable in upper class and scholarly circles. They advocated socialism, especially Walter Crane, who wrote socialist children's books to instill Utopian values at a young age. They promoted individualism in art and architecture, and wished that every living space would be unique and well thought out, reflecting the character of the owner. The art was meant to represent tolerance and liberty, and for that reason, often included Japanese and Indian motifs. (4)The female aesthetic movement also promoted non-normative sexuality, anti-elitism, and scientific thought, and refuted the sexual writing of male aesthetics (eg Oscar Wilde), using the more basic tenets of the male ideas to counter rampant misogyny. While many disillusioned artists eventually turned away from aestheticism, or tried to withdraw from society, they left an important cultural legacy, the philosophy of “art for arts sake.” In this way, aestheticism was a true turning away from the production of art for the twin orthodox gods of Christianity and capitalism. Their god was a moral being, who wished for beauty in creation and equality. Overall, the faith of aesthetics was a hope for a higher society, with autonomous and unified art, the mercy of god, and the egalitarianism of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (2)

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Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams is known for his majestic American landscapes, and the sense of reverence and wonder imbued in them. He photographed the ever changing natural world with awe, and saw the processes moving around him as an expression of the greatness of Creation. In 1937, while Adams was away in Wyoming, taking photographs, struggling with his feelings for his young assistant, he wrote to his friend Cedric Wright:

Dear Cedric,
A strange thing happened to me today. I saw a big thundercloud move down over Half Dome, and it was so big and clear and brilliant that it made me see many things that were drifting around inside of me; things that relate to those who are loved and those who are real friends.
For the first time I know what love is; what friends are; and what art should be.
Love is a seeking for a way of life; the way that cannot be followed alone; the resonance of all spiritual and physical things....
Friendship is another form of love -- more passive perhaps, but full of the transmitting and acceptances of things like thunderclouds and grass and the clean granite of reality.
Art is both love and friendship and understanding: the desire to give. It is not charity, which is the giving of things. It is more than kindness, which is the giving of self. It is both the taking and giving of beauty, the turning out to the light of the inner folds of the awareness of the spirit. It is a recreation on another plane of the realities of the world; the tragic and wonderful realities of earth and men, and of all the interrelations of these.
Ansel (6)

Adam’s phrasing, “The turning out to the light of the inner fold of the awareness of the spirit” is typical of Transcendental ideology at the time. They often used light as a metaphor to symbolize pureness of spirit and God in all things. While he was not raised in an organized religion, his parents passed on to him views of God in nature. His art is an archetypal example as wonder as a form of worship, and has clarified the religious views of many naturalists and hikers. Adams is a prime example of faith in the glory of God’s manifest creations on Earth, instead of the mysterious and archaic forms of worship practiced in churches.

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Art of the Holocaust

There is a lot of artistic output surrounding the atrocities committed by the Nazis. There is documentation of camp life, and hope for a better future. They reflect themes of hope and hopelessness, love of family, grief, starvation, and anger. Many of these works hover on the line between religious and secular, but there are some explicitly religious works. Lama Sabachthani (Why Have You Forsaken Me?), takes its title from the first line of Psalm 22, “My god, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The artist, Morris Kestelman shows the terror and anguish of being a European Jew in 1943 (although Kestelman was from the East End of London, his family were immigrants.)
George Mayer-Marton, who left his parents in Hungary when he fled in 1938, paints his grief upon hearing of their deaths. His work Women with Boulders shows mourning women, and the stone-studded field represents the stones Jews stack on graves for protection.
Roman Halter’s Mothers with Babies is interesting because it uses the forms and stained glass appearance of Pietas, but because the women are Jewish, they do not have the recognition or honors given to the Virgin Mary, and no solace from the anger of Protestant Germans. Any woman with a baby who was shipped to the camps was immediately sent to the gas chambers. (3)

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Margaret Shepherd

Shepherd takes a more individual approach to congregational religion. In her congregation, the First and Second Church of Boston, she uses calligraphy and fabric to express the unique spirit of the congregation by decorated the worship space with the names of the congregants, memorials to famous UUs and dead congregants, and the creeds of the youth (declared in front of the congregation upon the completion of the Coming of Age program.) She follows the Unitarian Universalist principles of self-realization of faith, and of integration of that creed into everyday life. She also uses the displays to remind the congregants of the variety of interpretations of a higher power and moral life, and as examples of using the UU principles in everyday life.” ’Writing is really an extension of gesturing — a way to make a motion visible, memorable, and lasting,’ Shepherd writes in Learn Calligraphy, the new edition of her best-selling introduction to the art.“

Her work is displayed in congregations across the world, and is interesting because it contrasts the ancient use of calligraphic ink on silk with the constant change of a Unitarian Universalist religious journey. With the immediate relation of her works to modern life, she makes the art form modern. Through the individualism of ink, she wishes to express the individualism of UUs, and create a lasting expression of her congregation’s ideas. She also uses minimal brushstrokes to form portraits of people and natural life. (8)

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Works Cited

(1) "Conversation with Juan Manuel Yanez." Personal interview. 27 Dec. 2016.

(2) Dowling, Linda. "Aestheticism." Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Ed. Michael Kelly. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 2 Jun. 2017. <>.

(3) Glawrence. "Artists' Responses To The Holocaust." Imperial War Museums. Imperial War Museums, 07 Jan. 2015. Web. 05 June 2017.

(4) Kelvin, Norman. "Art for Art's Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting." Victorian Studies 50.4 (2008): 743-5. ProQuest. Web. 2 June 2017.

(5) Negus, Tina. "Medieval Foliate Heads: A Photographic Study of Green Men and Green Beasts in Britain." Folklore 114.2 (2003): 247. ProQuest. Web. 11 May 2017.

(6) "People & Events: Ansel Adams (1902-1984)." WGBH Public Education Foundation, n.d. Web. 5 May 2017.

(7) Satchell, J. (1999). The green man in cumbria. Folklore, 110, 98-99. Retrieved from __

(8) Walton, Christopher L. "Beautiful Words: Margaret Shepherd Transforms Words into Art."UU World Mar.-Apr. 2002: 42-46. UU World. Unitarian Universalist Association, Mar.-Apr. 2002. Web. 15 May 2017.

Photography is personal, from UUWorld, or Pinterest.</span