Recapturing Sacred Art from Secular Bondage

Art history, which came of age during the secularizing nineteenth century, has spent over a century grappling with the problem of interpreting religious imagery. In our forensic society, the fact that Giotto, Michelangelo, and Leonardo never left explanatory texts to assure the faithful of their artistic intentions has opened a door to a relativist school of interpretation. The history of art often seems submerged in a quagmire of interpretative methodologies from the purely stylistic to the doggedly archival to the mood swings of Marxist, gender, or psychological approaches. The problematic fallout is that the titillating-yet-unsubstantiated explanation of a sacred image can be considered as possessing equal merit as the most well-documented hypotheses.

Dr. Chloë Reddaway brings much-needed order to these proceedings in her book Transformations in Persons and Paint: Visual Theology, Historical Images, and the Modern Viewer, pointing out that a chapel functions as a space for religious activity—prayer, liturgy, the sacrifice of the Mass—and that the formal decisions of the artist in the manipulation of pictorial space, the use of directed light, and the plasticity of the figures are often influenced by the theological content of the subject of the fresco cycle.

Reddaway does this in the most compelling of ways—bringing her reader to visit the most famous chapels in Florence (along with the enchanting convent of San Marco) and offering new and rich insights into these very familiar images.

These “sacred tours” commence with a description of the cycle (accompanied by splendid illustrations). Reddaway then presents the most authoritative interpretations to date by the finest scholars on the subject. Many readers will recognize the names of John Spike, Eve Boorsok, Marilyn Lavin, and Irwin Panofsky, luminaries in the history of art. From scene to scene the reader learns the story, analyzes the work, and hears what sounds like a fulfilling interpretation.

The author then adds a new component to this 20/20 vision of art history: the lens of theological interpretation. These frescoes, viewed through the belief in the Incarnation, the constant need for conversion, and humanity’s ultimate destiny and desire to return to God, reveal the secret of their continued attraction for viewers. Empty space in Santa Croce’s Bardi Chapel becomes an invitation to enter into faith; a few steps away in the Baroncelli Chapel, light not only flaunts the art-historical achievement of a night scene, but describes revealed Truth.

The enhanced vision of these six spaces is part of Reddaway’s larger ambition to create a “methodology for the theological interpretations of images.” Art history has waited a long time for this interpretative key. Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Renaissance Italy (1988) started considering the devotional use of art, then Pamela Jones analyzed five altarpieces in Altarpieces and Their Viewers in the Churches of Rome from Caravaggio to Guido Reni (2008), blending documentary erudition with careful consideration of the religious sensitivities of the viewers. Reddaway goes a step further, drawing the viewer into each scene, as the artists clearly intended, and indicating the potentially transformative spiritual experience that chapel art was expected to produce both in Renaissance Florence and in Counter-Reformation Rome.

The book makes important strides in Reddaway’s work to construct a methodology to pinpoint specifically Christian elements in art. In ReVisioning: Critical Methods of Seeing Christianity in the History of Art (eds. James Romaine and Linda Stratford, 2013), Dr. Reddaway outlined a critical method that would allow for theological hermeneutics and reception studies to assist traditional art-historical analysis in revealing the eschatological meaning within a work of art. This book road-tests her methodology to great success.

The one drawback in the work is that while the painting of Giotto, Ghirlandaio, and Fra Angelico mimicked the accessible preaching style of their patrons, and their open spaces or familiar details helped to bring mysteries and miracles into an easy-to-understand context, Reddaway’s writing can be a little pedantic, occasionally to the detriment of the engaging nature of her subject. Sharper editing might have captured the reader right away with the wondrous art, preparing the nonspecialist to follow Reddaway’s methodology with an example in mind. Editing also might have caught a couple of minor errors (i.e., Pope Clement VII as son of Lorenzo de’Medici), which, while unfortunate, do not seriously interfere with the scholarly effort of this book.

Chloë Reddaway offers more than just new insights into old Florentine favorites; she lays down a framework to recapture sacred art from its secular bondage with a critical method that future art historians will hopefully be inspired to employ and develop.

Elizabeth Lev is an art historian who teaches, studies, and writes in Rome with a special focus on Renaissance and Baroque art. She has written several books and regularly writes for Magnificat.