One of my granddaughters turned five this past month. Repeatedly, when asked what she wanted for her birthday, she insisted she wanted red pants. One night shortly before her birthday, she told her mother, “Life would be better with red pants.” Her mother called me to share that bit of wisdom verbatim. “Life would be better with red pants.”
As I did research on religious art and the church in preparation for a PBS radio interview about my church’s 175th anniversary celebration, I couldn’t help but think about that comment. To a five year old the wish for red pants represented a sublime desire for happiness. And what has that to do with religious art? Or the color red?
“Color has a huge impact on our emotions,” writes a blogger, “our perceptions, and our spiritual and physical well being.” An artist uses colors to capture a moment or an object and preserve it as meaningful. It will be interpreted differently by different people based on their experiences, ethnicity, or beliefs.
Years ago in New Orleans, I saw the work of Clementine Hunter, and I was taken by the way she captured life on the plantation. I now judge most folk art by what I learned from her work. Clementine Hunter started painting when she was about forty. Grandma Moses began painting in earnest at the age of 78. Both captured religious scenes such as baptisms, weddings, funerals, and going to church. Whether it is folk art or works found in cathedrals and galleries, the arts are used in religious services.
Study Renaissance paintings; wander through ancient cathedrals; listen to the richness of Bach or Beethoven; consider stained glass windows that narrate Bible stories. Whether it is interpretive drama based on Job or the Nativity or Handel’s Messiah or the simplicity of folk art or a Shaker hymn, art speaks to the soul, to the yearning people have for meaning, order, design, and beauty. Makato Fujimura put it best, “The arts are a cup that will carry the water of life to the thirsty. It’s not the water itself; it’s the vessel.” In this sense, then, religious art is sacrificial.
In many works of art created for the church, the color red figures predominantly. It represents courage, danger, vigor, leadership, anger, rage, strength, joy, determination, will power, as well as romance, radiance, and sexuality. Some of us can only appreciate what art provides. Some of us can’t play musical instruments, but we appreciate what music says. Just as writers must have readers, musicians need audiences. John Milton may have said it best, "They also serve who only stand and wait."
To a child, having red pants answers an internal desire. To mankind, religious art answers an internal need.