“How Should Secular People Approach Sacred Art?”: The Best Essay of Its Kind

“How Should Secular People Approach Sacred Art?”: The Best Essay of Its Kind December 12, 2014

I’ve read a ton of these and Pelagia Horgan’s appreciation of Fra Angelico is the best by far. Give it time to build:

The loveliest image I know is Fra Angelico’s ‘Entry of the Blessed into Paradise’, a scene from his painting The Last Judgment of 1431. In it, the blessed, just risen from their graves, gather together in a flowering garden to join hands with angels and dance into the light of heaven. There’s a scene in D H Lawrence’s novel The Rainbow (1915) when Anna Brangwen sees a copy of the image, and finds it almost too beautiful to look at. ‘The floweriness, the beams of light, the linking of hands, was almost too much for her, too innocent,’ writes Lawrence. Overwhelmed, she weeps ‘with happiness’.

I understand Anna’s feeling; I’d never been moved to tears by a painting before, but I was when I saw this one a few months ago in Florence. Yet if I step back and take in The Last Judgment as a whole – the saved on one side, welcomed by angels; the damned on the other, herded by devils; the celestial host above them, directing it all – it strikes me as an odd painting for a secular person to love. The Last Judgment is more than a work of art. It’s a profession of faith – in divine justice, the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, life everlasting. What does it mean for a person like me to love a painting like this? What does it mean to be moved by the beauty of a vision you can’t believe to be true?

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