My usual ABC column is up today, 'Art without god'.
Looking at the Vrancx's 'The Crossing of the Red Sea', I'm discussing the idea that we need religion for great art.
I'm also examining the ordinariness of religious art: how human, all too human it is. A sample:
For all the superlatives used to describe religious experience - awesome, sublime, infinite, eternal, and so on - 'The Crossing of the Red Sea' is wonderfully commonplace. Whether Vrancx was inspired by faith or simply informed by the church, his work has no hint of the numinous, or of Christ's generous gentility. In fact, it has little feeling at all, secular or religious. It is a testament to the religious psyche's capacity for ordinariness.
There is nothing wrong with ordinariness, of course. Most of us are ordinary most of the time. The cartilage of the human condition is dully translucent. But alongside their recognition of human failings, religions like Christianity promise more: a universe of perfection, which justifies and beautifies our quotidian lot; a divine timeline, beginning with a deity's magical words, and ending in a supernatural war for souls. Vrancx's painting is a reminder that religion is often as petty, clumsy and average as secular life - only less candid. If this is true, we are perfectly able to achieve this ordinariness on our own, without the cosmic sackcloth and tinsel. And this ordinariness is redeemed, not by sacrificial messiahs or archaic piety, but by something well within art's ambit: honesty about our quotidian condition.(Image: Francis Bacon, 'Study After Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953', courtesy of the Des Moines Art Center)