When we hear the words, “religious art,” we usually believe that refers to particular religious symbols like pictures of Christ, pictures of the Holy Virgin and Child, pictures of Saints and their stories, and many other religious symbols. Now this is one meaning of religious art; but there is another following from the larger concept of religion, namely, art as an expression of an ultimate concern. Naturally, it will be an aesthetic expression, an artistic expression, but it will be an expression of ultimate concern.
—Paul Tillich, Existentialist Aspects of Modern Art
Writing about how the modern painting of his day addressed the spirit of the times, the theologian, Paul Tillich, categorized as ”religious” those styles of art whose visual forms refer the viewer to meaning beyond the surface of the painting: “And why is it a religious style? Because it puts the religious question radically, and has the power, the courage, to face the situation out of which this question comes, namely the human predicament. . . . What modern art tries to do is to move away from the surface which had nothing to say any more to men of the twentieth century, and to move to the primal elements, the original elements of reality which in the physical realm are cubes, planes, colors, lines and shadows. From this point of view, such a picture can have a tremendous religious power.”
For Tillich, the works of Early Modern painters such as Cezanne, Braque, and Picasso, with their unconventional forms and disquieting imagery, addressed the disruption, existential doubt, emptiness, meaninglessness, and ambiguity which dwelt just below the surface of the culture. It was art itself which presented Tillich with an opportunity for those issues of ultimate concern to be addressed. In the metaphor and symbol language of art, brooded over by the Holy Spirit, he discovered the the love to transcend life’s ambiguities and the balance to unite the polarities.
Come Holy Spirit.