On art history

Rowan Williams describes the role the church – and the Christian story – have played in Western art.



Rowan Williams describes the role the church – and the Christian story – have played in Western art.


Western art develops initially very much in tune with the church’s requirements. The church is patron, stimulus, and also policeman of art. There is a set of conventions whereby you know how to depict the truths of the faith, and in Eastern Christianity of course that convention in the world of icons is still very, very rigorous, very strict indeed.

Western art begins to flex its muscles – to move into more exploratory, more unexpected phases – by the end of the Middle Ages. And when the Renaissance gets going, it’s really beginning to think other thoughts, see other images. And although the church is often unenthusiastic about that, what’s remarkable is I think how much leeway the church does allow in that period.

So I wouldn’t say that the church has been restrictive towards the arts. It’s a matter of historical fact that most of our great classical Western arts grew out of the Christian world and provided an appropriately ambitious and appropriately large scale canvas to work on. You know, you think of Bach’s Passions. There’s a massive story there, which calls out a massive response. Scroll forward a century or so and you’ve got another massive story and a massive response in Wagner – things have really changed there. But even so, what the great artist asks for is a worthy subject, something that really stretches their capacity, that really takes them beyond their comfort zone. The Christian story has been like that, it still is for many people. It’s not the only story that stretches in that way, but there’s no denying that it still is one that people return to – and it’s fascinating the people who wouldn’t describe themselves as having conventional religious commitment still want to wrestle with the story in some way or another.