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Neoclassicism and Religious Art in 18th-Century Europe  

Allison Palmer

The term “Neoclassicism” refers to an era when a large number of artists and scholars across Europe in the 18th century took inspiration from the history and material remains of classical antiquity, which was defined as ancient Greece and Rome. While Neoclassicism is often considered a stylistic trend, artists worked across stylistic categories, yet they were all part of a broad milieu that responded to profound societal changes by seeking out classical precedents for questions posed by Enlightenment thinkers. These questions included the purpose of religion in society, where philosophers including John Locke (1632–1704) and François-Marie Arouet Voltaire (1694–1778) theorized new spiritual modes to examine human existence. Many religious painters of the 18th century studied at the French Academy of Painting and Sculpture established in Paris in 1648 under royal sponsorship that dictated taste, and these artists were championed for their ability to depict grand expressions of human emotion learned from antiquity and from classicizing Renaissance and Baroque artists, including French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), who popularized the Roman concept of exempla virtutis. Jean- Baptiste Colbert, the First Minister to King Louis XIV and Vice-Protector of the Academy, promoted this grand classicizing Baroque style as the elevated style of the aristocracy, which laid the foundation for Neoclassicism. For French philosopher Denis Diderot (1713–1784), art could provide pleasure, but a superior artwork provided a visual beauty that inspired virtuous behavior; thus, while not all art served a religious function, artworks often showed examples of virtue. For example, Diderot, who reported on the biennial exhibitions sponsored by the Academy in Paris, praised Jacques-Louis David’s (1748–1825) Oath of the Horatii (1784, Louvre Museum, Paris), a depiction of a 7th-century bce Roman legend, for its demonstration of patriotic sacrifice. Many of these moralizing narratives drew upon stories from classical antiquity, learned by artists trained at the French Academy in Rome (established in 1666) during a period of study sometimes called the Grand Tour. Neoclassical art was also shaped by the intense cultural questioning that arose with the French Revolution, and it found fertile ground during the Industrial Revolution. Religious art had a complicated historical development in the 18th century given the dramatic changes that disrupted religious institutions and church patronage in favor of secular patrons and new subjects. Nonetheless, the moralizing tendencies of Neoclassicism and the academic favoring of historical painting continued to provide a place for religious art and architecture throughout the 18th century, much of which deserves further study.


The Age of Revolutions  

Conrad L. Donakowski

A variety of economic, ideological, aesthetic, and nationalist forces shape Christian worship in its varied manifestations today. Historical perspectives and areas of knowledge which are too often discussed in compartmentalized fashion are presented here as acting with and on each other and often serving each other’s purposes. Liturgical, musical, artistic, and architectural expressions are shown to be inextricably bound not only to theology, philosophy, and ecclesial hierarchy but also to political and socioeconomic structural change, technological innovation, and—not least—the culture and the human need for authentic spiritual experience. The Enlightenment “Age of Reason,” Romanticism, the nation-state, and the Industrial Revolution from the 17th through the 19th centuries affected religious practices that were the only mass medium that reached into every town, house, and heart. Connections are established with not only overtly religious events such as urban Evangelism, preservation of old architecture, the Oxford movement, and tradition versus innovation but also socialistic communal experiments and ethnic conflict among US immigrants.