Nietzsche once famously declared: “God is Dead.” It seems in the modernization of culture and society, the idea of divinity has fallen to the wayside and along with it the value-driven society that it helped to create. Thus, the natural evolution of modern art would lead to, at the worst, nihilism.
It makes sense, then, that modern religious art has become secular. No longer are images of God and his followers reserved for the Church—they have entered in the public domain, perhaps by default, but for years they have remained there,
“In the early part of the century, Western artists who sought explicit religious or spiritual expression almost always had recourse to Judeo-Christian story and symbol. This was only to be expected, as Christianity was the prevailing culture and its iconography had been dominant since the Middle Ages. The use of this subject matter did not necessarily coincide with a commitment to the tenets of any institutional religion but was sometimes little more than a well-worn reservoir of vocabulary made familiar to the artist through study of the old masters” (Crumlin 10).
But this assessment may be misguided. In using these timeless religious figures as mere “vocabulary,” modern artists have actually taken a step to revolutionize the concept of religion in the public conscience. Art may not have changed Catholicism, but it has certainly has proven that religion pervades everything:
“A great taboo of the twentieth century has been precisely the association of religion and art. We’ve tended to say that art is something separate from religion. What the Beyond Belief exhibition shows is that art and religion interpenetrate, that they’re mutually fructifying, and that religions imagination is present in all areas of life” (Freedberg, talking to Crumlin 12).
Modern art has embraced the divine—sometimes by Catholic artists such as Dalí and Warhol, other times by atheists who simply find religious themes artistically approachable. Regardless of the religion of the artist, the message remains: art and religion are inseparable. The divine imagination is immortal—the alienation that defines much of modernization actually creates the innate need in artists to cope with the divine. And that need keeps the divine alive and well to this day.
The Sacrament of the Last Supper: Salvador Dalí, National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, 1955 (Photo c/o The Peacocks Tail)
In 1949, Dalí had separated himself from the Surrealist movement and begun a new artistic path in his life. Two interwoven factors contributed to this stylistic shift: his newfound Catholicism and his fascination with High Renaissance ideas (Novak). Despite this spiritual awakening, Dalí still showed remnants of his Surrealism, as well as a newer fascination with the sciences, most notably nuclear physics. Thus, in The Sacrament of The Last Supper, the viewer can see a conflation of scientific, Renaissance, and Catholic elements like never before.
Rather than being a direct replica of da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Dali’s version is a personal interpretation rather than a devotional study. The “Apostles” surrounding Christ aren’t apostles, but rather mirror images of each other. And Christ, in the middle, is a youthful depiction, instead of the middle-aged man he would’ve been at the time. Lastly, Dalí’s reinterpretation lacks any of the emotional depth that da Vinci’s does. Christ himself appears immune to any melancholy, and each “apostle” shows nothing but complete devotion. Thus, Dali made no effort, as da Vinci did, at a truthful representation. This blatant disregard places Dali’s symbolism front and center.
Not just youthful, Christ is also transparent—he is less human than representation. Since the subject of the painting is the Sacrament itself, it seems Dali is illustrating the presence of the spirit of Christ in the bread and wine on the table. Another explanation could have something to do with Dalí’s interest in nuclear physics, especially Einstein’s famous equation of mass to energy. Thus, Jesus is energy instead of man, a sort of scientifically informed mysticism that would have very much appealed to the Christian mystic in Dalí.
But not all in this painting is new. The ephemeral body above Christ’s head and in the upward direction of Christ’s finger hearkens back to the concept of the unknowable God in Early Christianity. Despite being shown in bodily form, a la Michelangelo’s ceiling, God the Father is really hidden—the viewer sees no face and only part of his body. Thus, the invisibility of God plays a central role, both a product of new-age mysticism and centuries-old reverence.
Another nod back to classicism comes in the setting. By placing the scene within a dodecahedron, Dalí is referencing Plato’s philosophy of Solids. Among the 5 solids, Plato associated the dodecahedron with the cosmos, “”There still remained a fifth construction, which the god used for embroidering the constellations on the whole heaven” (The Platonic Solids). Thus, Dalí affirms the scene’s heavenly nature and, as every era has done, looks back to Greco-Roman culture for that symbolism.
It is clear that Dalí’s Last Supper is very much a personal interpretation of the Eucharist. Far from following conventional norms, Dalí acts as a Renaissance artist and projects his own religious sentiments onto the piece rather than conforming to standard conventions in devotional art.
The Last Supper: Andy Warhol, 1986 (Photo c/o MoMA)
Andy Warhol was a deeply religious man: “according to the pastor of his church, Warhol visited every day, lit a candle, and prayed for 15 minutes” (Hollowverse). While this peculiar (and, during his lifetime, private) fact doesn’t have much of an effect on the majority of his artwork, it does inform his final series, The Last Supper. As with the majority of his subjects, Warhol created variations on Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic piece, all summing up to a grand statement on religion in the modern era.
Looking at the The Last Supper imbued with corporate logos, one sees another of Warhol’s commodity critiques. His deft selection of logos reinforces da Vinci’s symbolism and lambastes modern culture, all at once. The Dove logo illustrates the corporatization of religion, but the dove itself represents the Holy Spirit, the third part of the trinity da Vinci was so interested in. The price tag at the top calls out the commercialization of Catholicism, but also represents Christ’s final sacrifice—paying the price for humanity’s sins. And for Warhol, that’s exactly what is being critiqued: humanity’s sins.
The image of Christ and his apostles, arguably one of the most proliferated in all of Christianity, has, in a way, taken on a pop cultural element. Artist and authors of the modern era have unabashedly replicated and spun off the piece. To Warhol’s eye, then, this once devotional fresco was denigrated to the point of commodification. Far from being the somber meal Leonardo imagined, the image has been robbed of all meaning.
The very process of modernization, in all its forms, involves an alienation from the past. In order to reinvent genre, one must abandon all the norms of the past. To many artists, one of those norms was religion. In noLast Supper do we see such alienation as in Ben Williken’s. Instead of reimagining the feast, he reimagines the space, devoid of all life and sterilized against all warmth. Despite maintaining the spatial features, he manages to rip away all meaning with which the original is endowed, to a bare minimum.
Williken’s photographic Last Supper is a scientific departure from religion. The tiled floor, steel doorways, and sanitary white walls appear more like a science lab than dining room. Even the table, adorned in da Vinci’s white tablecloth, reeks of industrial design, with its steel legs and their rubber tips. For obvious reasons, emotion plays no role for Willikens, who chooses to sacrifice depth for hygiene. Willikens may, then, be replacing religion with science, or worse, the very nihilism Nietzsche warned of.
But there’s an incongruity in this alienated image. Despite the cold metal of the dining hall, the background contradicts everything concrete about it. The space itself doesn’t ooze godlessness. Taking a cue from da Vinci’s original, Willikens focuses on a light source from outside the main dining area. From the three orifices, a divine light tears through the entire room, pervading it with mystery. Horst Schwebel describes the light in Beyond Belief: “Thus the viewer, having first accepted the grey melancholy of emptiness, is being rewarded for his steadfastness as he gets his share of the emanation of light from behind” (Crumlin).
The alienation of modernization takes on an entirely different form. Willikens isn’t arguing for or against God, but is attempting to grasp at the higher power that so many modernists attempt to ignore. It’s impossible to conceive, here, a room without da Vinci’s divine light, despite the apparent rationalism we see around us today.
La Ultima Cena: Fernando Bayona, Feb. 2010 (Photo c/o Fernando Bayona Web)
Fernando Bayona’s Circus Christi series takes, perhaps, the most liberties of any modern artist. Reimagining the Holy family as homosexual and criminal is undoubtedly blasphemous, until the veil is lifted and the true meaning of Christianity in contemporary art is revealed.
It’s never been more obvious that Christian art has become secular. The saints are re-appropriated artistic subjects, Jesus is a symbol, and the traditional God is dead. But in pushing these once sacred ideas to their existential limits, modernism has actually resurrected a desire for the devotional. In Bayona’s La Ultima Cena, the core message is not of the paradoxical nature of the Catholic Church’s policies regarding homosexuality, but rather the accessibility of religion to all. By depicting Joseph as a drug dealer and Jesus as a gay rock star, Bayona is actually reaching out to the alienated in an attempt to regain their faith. Thus, the Circus Christi series may very well be classified as a form of the modern baroque. The intense emotion of the scene, paired with the accessibility of the characters mirrors much of what Bernini was doing for contemporary Christians in the 17th century.
One can also see subtle Renaissance nods in the photograph. Just as da Vinci does in his interpretation, Bayona places a great deal of emotional depth in each character in the scene. Christ, again, shows humanity in his melancholy, along with his apostles, some of whom are sprawled melodramatically on the table. Even some of da Vinci’s original pairings remain—the Peter, John, Judas trio to Christ’s right, for example, maintain their same dynamic of anger, distress, and detachment.
Another Renaissance nod is in the sexuality of Christ. The fact that Christ is gay doesn’t mean Christ was a fraud, it means Christ was a human. The accessibility that is core to the Baroque also highlights the humanism of the Renaissance. Far from praising only the divine, Bayona shows the modern viewer that the divine can be found everywhere, for the root of that divine—Jesus Christ—was one of us. Thus, religion, in a secular age becomes more accessible than ever before, and once again becomes devotional.