Arts in Service to Faith

Elsewhere the Owl has offered a squib called “Performing Art” arguing that altarpieces and other objects in church actively participate in worship by depicting the saints and narratives as indeed present with worshipers. Here follow some specific instances.


Basaiti, Agony in the Garden
Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

Basaiti’s Agony in the Garden is a perfect example of an altarpiece that functions as a membrane between the two realms of liturgical space. It has been removed from its proper context, but the marble arch within the painting no doubt replicates the architecture of its surroundings.[1] Jesus kneels at the rock with the disciples are strewn sleeping around him. Patron saints stand on a pavement outside the arch that makes a boundary between them and the narrative scene. The dividing line both separates and joins; we and these patrons together look through it to the praying Christ.

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Borgo sansepolcro

My wife and I stood outside the Church of Sant’Agostino in the northern Tuscan town of Borgo Sansepolcro. It was Palm Sunday, a brilliant spring morning. It is a medieval church in a walled city, dating from the thirteenth century. This is the home town of Piero della Francesca, whose fresco Resurrection is one of the world’s great art treasures. We are strangers in the neighborhood.

—I can’t go in there.
—Why not?
—I don’t know what to do.
—Of course you know what to do in any church in the world. Go to a pew, kneel and pray.

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