How Sacred Is Sacred Art?

by S.P. Bachelder

Broken white statue

As an artist, and an Anglican Catholic, I read with particular attention Addison Hart’s letter on the comments of Shaun King asking for the destruction of white Jesus.   

One must ask then, should sacred art be sacred? Protected from the accidents of history? Or all art? And who decides what is sacred? Or for that matter, what is art? 

As we watched the Taliban destroy the Bamyan Buddhas of Afghanistan, and blow up the ancient African City of Palmyra, and as we now continue to watch zealots destroy the mosques and ancient tombs of Saints that are sacred to all the Abrahamic religions, who can say with certainty what qualifies as sacred or civilization’s patrimony beyond religious relevance? Violence against ideas has expressed itself through the physical destruction of objects of sacred traditions for thousands of years. Professor Erin L. Thompson observed in a June 24th article in the New York Times that we tend to destroy rather than protect cultural objects during times of transition. In fact destruction is the norm historically.  Bronze statues were ripped from pedestals, melted down, recast to look like the winners and returned to the same pedestals. If there was neither time nor money at the end of a war, the victor’s head would be recast and attached to the losers body.

The wealth of a country was often seen as a reason to go to war.  The Christian Crusaders on their way to wage war on the infidels stormed the Christian city of Constantinople to carry off their sacred objects. Ancient Rome went to war and sacked Greece, absorbing the entire Greek patrimony into Roman practice. Greek statues, gods, and their philosophers were sent back to Rome as slaves in service to Empire. Rome itself a few hundred years later was sacked by the Vandals, and Rome the city under the Ostrogothic King of Italy, Theoderic and his descendants in the 6th century CE, defended it for 30 years against the “real” Romans of Constantinople under the Emperor Justinian, whose Roman laws still inform our own to this day.  Justinian never found the Ostrogoth’s treasure. But all the art, jewels, paintings, horses, and houses, whatever else survived, was taken to other places, divided as spoils of war. Or destroyed.   We have a lot of marble heads of Romans, broken marble bodies, but precious few bronze statues as most were melted down.

What is interesting in the present day discussions of race in public forums is the little known figure of Johann Joachim Winckelmann. For one hundred years, Europeans had been pillaging ancient sites for antiquities. Statues bleached white from centuries of exposure to the elements were dug up and placed in private collections. As Europe was throwing off its monarchies in violent rebellion in the 18th century, Winckelmann turned to the ancient Greeks to write about the ESSENCE of their art and ideas. Ideas mind you, not their lives; the ideas that inspired the founding fathers of France and America: democracy, nobility of thought, and philosophy.  Winckelmann’s close analysis of the ancient marble statues in these private collections, and the publication of his book The History of Art in Antiquity was a game changer for how we as a civilization saw our past. The problem was that all Wincklemann saw was white marble, not, as we have come to know, the spectrum of color that the Greeks applied to statues and public buildings throughout the Hellenic world. Temples and statuary for the ancients were a cacophony of color, not white.

The reality of the lively arts of Athens expressed the reality of their vibrant and chaotic democracy. But Winckelmann, who was adamant that nothing of this reality impact his neat vision of pure white form and proportion, literally missed the boat he was supposed to take to see Greece for the very first time. After studying and writing on the subject his entire life, Wincklemann never saw Athens, or had the opportunity to contextualize his observations. Some feel he deliberately missed the boat because he could not face the complexity or contradictions it posed to his own purely aesthetic point of view. A problem that we now must confront—can we look at a white Jesus as an aesthetic convention out of keeping with historic reality and still have it function as sacred art within our worship services?

Today we are faced with questions that we have faced since Plato wrote the Symposium. What is the beauty we see in art? Is it the Platonic Good? Is it really the same for all? Or in the eye of the beholder? Do we really “know it when we see it”? And do sacral expressions warrant more respect and protection than expressions of power when presented in the quasi public sphere of the forum or in the temple?

To date, we have not answered any of these questions well or completely.

We will I am sure honor these new ideas as they create new art. That will happen as it always has in history.  As we advance the process of de- and re-sacralization of objects and ideas, it is my ardent hope that during this transition, we do not have to melt down all the statues, or destroy objects of religious importance to some, and of great beauty to many that we now acknowledge reflect elements of a civilization and our flawed humanity that are both profane and sacred.

As we do this, it is important to recall Seneca, “All new beginnings start with another beginning’s end,” and appreciate that while things change, they will face their own twilight somewhere in a future we can help now to envision. Contrary to our 20th century notions of growth and endless progress at any cost, and warring nationalism and bigotry, we can choose to join with the circularity of the earth, the flow of sea and sky and its peoples, and our lives supported by this one sacred home we share: our planet. Wincklemann never saw the reality of the ancients he wrote about. I fear our cyclic pass through history will not be any more forgiving than the 18th century unless we reflect with humility and grace our shared humanity by wrapping ourselves in the full colorful spectrum we, at heart, are.


Susan P. Bachelder is an independent scholar residing in western Massachusetts with interests in Late Antiquity and early Christianity.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.