Christmas has been a God-send to the artistic tradition of Western civilisation.
That’s not just because of the opportunity to produce vast nativity
scenes – with plenty of animals and shepherds and angels to take up the
space – and greetings cards. It’s because Christmas is the fulfilment
of the idea of the incarnation: the idea of God becoming man.
significance of this idea becomes apparent when we sketch the ways in
which divinity was imagined in the two traditions which fed into
Western Christianity: classical paganism and Judaism.
In classical antiquity, when the gods were thought of as
super-powerful people, there was no difficulty about portraying them.
Apollo was supposed to look like a man: only with superb posture and
perfect pectorals. The more a sculptor could convey those qualities,
the more adequately the god was represented. So the classic statues of
divinities were designed to bring their audiences close to an encounter
with the gods; the statues actually share some of the admired qualities
of the gods themselves. That is in part why classical sculpture
developed such refined technique. It was by learning to give a statue
the appearance of visual grace, poise, balance and mobile strength that
the most admired physical characteristics of the gods could be
But in the Judaic tradition, from which Christianity evolved, the
conception of God was quite different. God was essentially hidden and
immaterial, an essence without an appearance. It hardly made sense to
ask what God looked like. He wasn’t supposed to look like anything,
hence the abstracted, natural manifestations of divine presence in the
Old Testament: a burning bush, a cloudy pillar.
In this tradition it is entirely understandable that images of God
should be proscribed or at least regarded with suspicion. As the Jewish
philosopher Maimonides argued in the 12th century, any representation
of God must be false because it would have to represent God as being a
particular way. And yet God is infinite, eternal, omnipotent and
omniscient and those qualities cannot possibly be conveyed by any
limited material image. The idea of the incarnation put these two
strands of thought together. In the person of Christ, God becomes a
physical being, while also (somehow) remaining abstract and eternal.
The God of the cosmos, the God that orders the structure of the
universe is also conceived of as someone you could meet.
Psychologically, this was a crucial aspect of the cultural success of
Christianity as a mass market religion in Europe.
For people not overly given to abstract speculation, for people of
direct and urgent emotional needs, the idea of a God that knew them,
because he shared their nature, was extremely important. (The
difficulty of explaining his dual existence as God and man might
possibly have kept a large number of philosophers in employment for a
very long time.)
Like Christ, a painting or a building or a piece of music was
thought of as belonging simultaneously to two orders of existence: the
material and the spiritual. And the one object could participate fully
and properly in each of these. The great work of art doesn’t just point
to, or suggest, or “refer to” its spiritual object. Rather – like the
Greek sculpture – it reproduces and shares the beloved qualities.
A gothic cathedral was intended to reproduce in carved stone and
stained glass the moral order of the cosmos. And so, when you
contemplate the aesthetic character of the cathedral, in the right
frame of mind, you are not only enjoying a pleasant artistic
experience, you are – if you are a believer – participating in the
divine order of the universe. It’s not surprising that medieval
communities devoted such a high proportion of their material resources
to the construction of such buildings.
But the significance of this idea went much deeper than religious
art. The basic idea is that of communion between different realms or
modes of existence: between the limited earthly condition and eternity
and the realm of the spirit and ideal perfection. The inspiration for
the artist is this: a work of art, which is a material object, made of
cloth or canvas, or worked stone – the most early, most crudely
physical stuff – can, if arranged with sufficient skill and
imagination, lead the beholder to an experience as of the spiritual
order of existence. Art didn’t just have to represent what could be
seen, it could aspire to a much more noble vocation.
This fostered the idea of the sublime. The term comes from the old
natural sciences. Sublimation occurs when a solid object (such as a log
of wood) becomes as gas without going through a liquid state, as it
does when you throw it on the fire. This provides a powerful analogy
for a certain kind of human experience.
The log is our material condition. Anything which gets us to burn
with the flame of higher passions is sublime: it raises us up to a
higher mode of existence. It might be the sight of the stars as you lie
back on the grass on a dark and cloudless night and lose yourself in
the infinite spaces. The hopelessly minute and insignificant status of
human life (and especially of one’s own life) is revealed; and yet, at
the same time, we are ennobled by our capacity to have these thoughts,
by the fact that imagination and understanding can meet and engage with
This raising up could be deliberately induced by art if the artist
could arrange the material in such a way as to generate a similar kind
of response. Works at the centre of the Western artistic canon, such as
Beethoven’s string quartets or Turner’s seascapes, seek to lead us, via
sensuous perception, to an encounter with eternity. Secular though
these works are, they are rooted in the theology of the incarnation, in
the idea that lies behind Christmas.
The traumas of the 20th century – to generalise boldly – induced an
intense modesty of remorse and embarrassment in the art world. As
Kenneth Clark put it in the late 1960s: “We don’t feel very heroic
now.” Two world wars originating in the heart of Europe cast a show
over a cultural tradition that centred on the optimistic notion that we
could make works of art that profoundly and confidently asserted the
nobility of humanity.
The idea of the sublime lingered for a while in abstract
expressionism. The vast almost empty canvases of Mark Rothko are
intended to induce a loss of self-awareness, to open the beholder to
the infinite. But this was the sublime at its most abstract. Our
longing for the infinite is acknowledged, but the price is that all
local content – all sense of life here and now – is given up.
In more recent years, the rise of Aboriginal art has, I think, done
something to fill this gap. The sense that these works are beholden to
a cosmic vision, that they speak not just about particular local events
but about the meaning of the world conceived on the grandest scale is
one of the factors that draws us to such images. Non-Aboriginal
enthusiasm for these works is partly explained by an otherwise unmet
need for meaning; for the sense that works of art can show us the
beautiful order of the world.
Perhaps Christmas is the time to draw a lesson from Australian Aboriginal art
and wonder if, perhaps, its sublime confidence could be an inspiration
to other traditions.
John Armstrong is an Associate
Professor in the Philosophy Department of Melbourne University. He
is the author of several internationally-acclaimed books on art and
aesthetics, including Move Closer, Looking at Pictures, The
Secret Power of Beauty and Love, Life, Goethe.