As a young girl living in a quasi-Orthodox Jewish home, my mother bought me a picture book narrating the story of God presenting Moses with the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Beautifully illustrated with golden colours decorating the borders of the book, it outlined the commandments in childspeak, instilling a sense of moral integrity I have tried to adhere to all my life.
It was an exciting, educational introduction to my faith, glorying in the spiritual solemnity of the colourful paintings as I learned about The Bible. As an adolescent, I studied art in school, marvelling at the joy and majesty of the great masterpieces depicting many significant stories of Christendom and its history of centuries past.
The portrayal of religious faith in art is an ancient practice, with Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilisations before Christ creating artworks as homage to their deities. Later, Popes and patrons commissioned artists to enshrine their beliefs and values in diverse endeavours.
Throughout time, art has been perceived as a prayer of worship, promoting theological tenets to evoke a holy communion of the soul.
Despite becoming agnostic in my twenties and abandoning a traditional, Jewish lifestyle, travelling overseas then taught me important lessons about Judaism and Christianity, enriching my religious understanding by viewing art in many grandiose churches and galleries I was fortunate to visit.
Seeing the original works perused in books, I was thrilled, if not exhilarated, by sitting in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican in Rome for several hours staring wondrously at the breathtaking artistry of Michelangelo’s ceiling. Painted in the early 16th century, it centres on several scenes from The Old Testament to the story of Noah and the Flood, the art’s sheer beauty and strength a religious reflection of humanity.
There was also the marble sculpture of Moses to experience and the sensitive, sad and soulful Pieta; faiths embraced to enhance a tolerant perspective about religion itself. In London, I viewed Leonardo da Vinci’s 1483 Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery, enthralled by the ethereal, sensitive elegance of Mary and the baby Jesus, where feeling Jewish did not divert my great delight.
In Australia, indigenous art also embodies a special spirituality of its own, our Aborigines dedicated to a didactic anthology for our enjoyment and instruction.
Whether one is devoutly religious or a non-believer, we can, or should, revel in the valuable heritage of religious art, with different faiths inspiring an aesthetic of religious freedom for the joyful reverence of humankind.