NEW YORK, Jan. 8 (UPI) -- Contemporary religious art is relegated to Bible Belt calendars and the occasional iconoclastic painting that turns up in shows at museums and causes a brief sensation as in the case of the Madonna adorned with elephant dung at the Brooklyn Museum.
But a visit to any encyclopedic museum will offer proof of how important religious art has been throughout the history of civilization, especially in Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian cultures. Artists in the Christian West probably have spent more time painting Mary and the Christ Child than any other subject except the Crucifixion.
The last great period of art inspired by religion was the 19th century, an era when social and political upheaval in Europe posed serious challenges that were bravely met by academic artists, especially in France. This forgotten chapter in art history is being explored for the first time by an exhibition at the Dahesh Museum, to run through Jan. 26.
"Religious Images in 19th Century Academic Art" is a show that has gotten almost no attention from the critical community in New York since it opened last October because it would appear to be completely out of touch with what has been going on in the art world since the advent of Impressionism and all the others art isms that followed. The New York Times kissed it off as "worth a walk through."
It is worth more than that, for it demonstrates that even in a secular age like the 19th century, ushered in by the anti-clerical French Revolution, there were plenty of defenders of the faith courageous enough to produce religious art in new styles and using new subject matter. A renaissance of religious art began in earnest in 1814 with the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France.
This small exhibit of 41 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures ranges from works emulating Renaissance masters, grand historical scenes popular in the years of the Napoleonic Empire, and genre - intimate story-telling scenes - that suits the bourgeois society of the Victorian era. Examples of pseudo-Medieval religious art by a group of German artists known as The Nazarenes are not included, although they would have strengthened the show.
Depiction of religious subjects was greatly encouraged by a vast number of commissions for art to fill churches and government buildings throughout France as the result of a new alliance between church and state under the Bourbons. One of the sculptors represented in the show was herself a Bourbon, Princess Marie d'Orleans, youngest daughter of King Louis-Philippe.
Marie was a student of Ary Scheffer, a painter of Romantic sensibilities whose works reflected piety and devotion. The princess was pious by nature and her bronze "Joan of Arc Praying," showing the maid in armor holding her sword over her heart like a crucifix, exudes sentimentality but is quite professionally sculpted. Marie died at 26 before she could establish her reputation as an artist.
Paintings and sculpture illustrative of Bible stories dominated the work of the era, and the show includes a splendid example, "Joseph's Coat Being Brought to Jacob," painted in 1841 by J.A.F. Naudin It is a canvas full of drama in every gesture and expression of the patriarch and his perfidious sons and the color composition focusing on Jacob's red robe of Jacob is particularly satisfying.
An apocryphal Biblical scene imagined by Alexandre Cabanel, a much-admired artist influenced by Michelangelo, is his 1851 canvas "The Death of Moses," showing the aged leader of the Israelites dying in the presence of God amidst a billowing vortex of drapery and angels' wings. It is stagey enough to be kitsch, but actually was painted with a political purpose -- to celebrate the return to Rome of the exiled Pope Pius IX due to the efforts of Napoleon III.
Among the several drawings in the show by the prolific illustrator Gustav Dore, even more popular than Cabanel in his time, is one titled "Moses Before Pharaoh," a detailed spectacular that might have inspired Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood style. James Tissot, whose paintings recently become extremely valuable in the art market, also went in for historically correct detail in his gouaches of Joseph and his brethren at Pharaoh's court.
In addition there are fine Bible story paintings by Leon Augustine Lhermitte, Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, and Jean Lecomte du Nouy, a member of the French Orientalist school of painters who specialized in Middle Eastern scenes. He is represented by an 1875 portrait of the biblical heroine, Judith, wearing an ornate marriage hat typical of Bethlehem women the artist met on his travels in the Holy Land.
By the 1850s, there was a trend away from highly dramatic scenes to images of rural and peasant life that was probably nearer to Jesus' everyday experiences. A religious work titled "Charity," by the world-famous Adolphe-William Bouguereau, may be derived from Renaissance images of the Virgin Mary but she is dressed like an Italian peasant woman.
This humanizing of religious imagery, which continues to be popular to this day, is epitomized by Lhermitte's pastel, "The Samaritan at the Well," showing a woman in coarse peasant dress confronted by a Jesus in robes as simple as hers and without a halo. The artist made a career of ascribing nobility to the poor, giving an aura of spirituality to shepherds, harvesters, gleaners, and other folk of the field in the manner of his Barbizon School predecessor, Jean-Francois Millet.
The exhibition also includes depictions of Islamic and Jewish religious scenes by Orientalist J.-L. Gerome, who is represented by a painting of Muslims worshiping at a mosque titled "Public Prayer" and Jews praying at the so-called Wailing Wall titled "Solomon's Wall, Jerusalem." There also are paintings of confrontations between Christian, Islamic and Jewish religious groups, both benign and violent.
Not all religious art was designed to inspire piety or arouse political passions. Sometimes an artist dealing with religious imagery set out to satirize and amuse, as is the case of Jehen-Georges Vibert, one of those French artists who specialized in clerical salon scenes such as "The Missionary's Adventures," an 1883 oil in the show.
Vibert depicts a returned Roman Catholic missionary, simply robed in black, going on and on intensely about his experiences in some remote part of the world, unaware that he is boring his audience of indifferent red and purple-robed church prelates to the verge of napping. The artist painted it at a time when anti-clerical sentiments were running high once again in France and the Third Republic was taking measures to separate church and state.