Many religions are notable for the wealth of visual art they have generated. Indeed, according to the Oxford Dictionary ofWorld Religions, it is religions that have been “the source and inspiration of almost all the most enduring art and architecture throughout the whole of human history, at least until very recently.” As the inclusion of architecture in this claim suggests, the assessment relates to the arts in general, all of which have benefitted enormously from religious patronage on a massive scale over a very long period of time. When people speak of “religious art,” though, they are often referring primarily to the visual and plastic arts – painting, sculpture, ornamentation, tapestry, calligraphy, and so on. Even if we confine ourselves to these visual arts (the subject of this chapter), the Oxford Dictionary's claim still holds good. Leonardo's Last Supper, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, Bernini's statue of St. Theresa's Ecstasy, and Rubens's Miraculous Draught of Fishes all have Christian subjects and are at the same time famous, and sumptuous, examples of European visual art at its finest. Furthermore, it is also true that these works, along with a great many others, owe their very existence to Christian patronage.
Christianity is not the only world religion to have produced great art. Hinduism too has generated a huge profusion of vibrant painting, ornamentation, and statuary. On the other hand, in sharp contrast to these two world religions, Judaism and Islam are notable for their deep reservations about visual art, especially of a representative kind. In Judaism, this reservation springs from a fear of idolatry. The second of the Ten Commandments given to Moses onMount Sinai says, “You must not make a carved image for yourself, nor the likeness in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them in worship.”(Exodus 20:4) Islam shares this reservation, though for slightly different reasons perhaps. The hadith, which records all properly authenticated stories about the life of the Prophet Muhammad, recounts an episode in which Muhammad returned home to find that his favorite wife, A'isha, had been embroidering a cloth with human figures. He threw both the embroidered cloth and A'isha out of the tent, with the words “Give life to that which you have created”.
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