On the ordinary in art

David Bentley Hart explains what’s most interesting to him in the break Christianity made with ancient storytelling.



David Bentley Hart explains what’s most interesting to him in the break Christianity made with ancient storytelling.

I think one would have to be extremely strange, and devoted to the anti-Christian narrative to the point of psychosis, to argue that, overall, Christian culture hasn’t been quite impressive in its artistic products.

Christianity, though, in the early centuries, it’s true – there is some suspicion of certain kinds of art, because of the degree to which pagan piety, especially in the eastern part of the empire, was based on the idea of theophaneia, the god showing himself in a carven image. So the graven image in the basilica was generally discouraged, you know. But not the arts as such. 

What’s interesting, perhaps, when one looks at the arts in Christian culture, is the degree to which a humane sensibility is introduced. What most interests me is the degree to which the human is invited into the realm of the sublime, the elevated, the beautiful. Erich Auerbach, the great literary critic years ago, marvelled … I mean this was a man of extraordinary learning, I mean he knew the whole of the Western literary tradition in a depth and with a comprehensiveness that few of us can boast. He marvelled at just the story of the Apostle Peter weeping in the Gospels, for the simple reason that we can comb through all the literature of antiquity and there are wonderful stories and, you know, the tragic, as such, the sense of the greatness of the great man, the semi-divine man, is part of antique culture and its arts. What isn’t is the nobility and tragic gravity of the common person. I mean Roman comedy made a great … most of Roman comedy, to a great degree, is about mocking the peasantry. It’s amazing, this seemed to be the chief … you know, slaves and peasants are laughable. What they aren’t is quite human.

And Auerbach saw in a narrator recording the story of a common fisherman weeping in grief as a moment of tragic seriousness as a break, and as something new in the arts. And I think, whatever other claims you want to make – you can point to different ages of Christian art, Christian polyphony in the early Baroque or the discovery of perspective for the Byzantine icon, and you can decide which somehow most deeply embodies some Christian vision of reality. They all do in their various ways and you don’t need to take sides. But what is different, what’s new, and what, from beginning to end, what subtends the whole story of Christian aesthetics is that it reaches down into the lowest as much as it aspires to the highest. And this is something quite new. 

And it’s obviously in large part because this amphiboly of the Christian story, that God is also a Galilean peasant, a slave – I mean literally, in the language of Paul, is doulos, a slave – and God at the same time, and so the realm of the divine, of the beautiful, of the radiant, of both the sublime and the beautiful, now takes in every dimension of human experience. And I think that’s reflective of the whole Western tradition of art as a result of the Christian revolution and sensibility.