On Divine Art and Drama
Great art, in all its fields is devotional art, devotional rather than religious in the sense that in its making, the artist is devoted to the creation, not necessarily to a deity. By that definition one can include such masterworks as, say, a Jackson Pollok painting or a Calatrava bridge. Religious art is by nature devotional in the traditional sense, as being devoted to a god, but it is not by any means always great. Enter any church or synagogue, mosque or pagan temple and you will be able to observe a host of examples of religious artwork that is not great art. Religious emotions may have been behind their creation, but greatness has not been achieved. Nonetheless, religious inspirations have certainly resulted in many of the greatest artistic creations.
As to which is the greatest field in devotional art, that is purely a matter of taste and personal preference. For me, I think, if I were pushed to choose one, I would have to say music… or perhaps poetry… or… well, obviously architecture... or perhaps…
Fortunately, one doesn’t have to choose. That’s the great thing; we can enjoy and be emotionally moved by some art forms and not by others, and that is perfectly alright. The other great thing about art, including religious art, is that we can enjoy it no matter what religion we observe, if any. The spiritual motivations of its creator in no way affect our ability to appreciate it. I doubt if a Hindu observer of Michelangelo’s Pieta is less emotionally moved than a devout Catholic, though his emotions may be somewhat different. I can admire and delight in a piece of Arabic calligraphy with no regard to the religious message it bears, and which, for a devout Muslim is its prime significance.
The facade of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as it stands today is a strange amalgamation of elements and styles. Although it is less changed than the interior of the church, which has experienced a great number of alterations since the twelfth century, the facade has had at least five notable changes made to it: the dome and upper storeys of the bell tower have been destroyed and the staircase and doorway on the right-hand side that once gave access to Calvary via the Chapel of the Franks was blocked, as was the right-hand main portal, probably both by Saladin in 1187, the mosaic work that once decorated the arched recesses or tympanums above the two portals was probably also destroyed in 1187, and the marble Romanesque friezes, which until 1927 decorated the lintels of the two portals, were removed by British mandatory authorities, apparently in order to be repaired, but were never replaced and are still located in the Rockefeller Museum outside the city walls.
Despite these changes, the church facade is much closer than any other part of the church to its medieval form, to how it must have appeared to the clergy, city residents, pilgrims and other visitors who participated in the official consecration of the restored church on 15 January, 1149, the fiftieth anniversary of the crusader conquest of Jerusalem. That ceremony would have been a dramatic event. It signified the ultimate fulfilment of Pope Urban's call to recover the holy places of Christianity.
There is nothing quite like this facade; a sort of monumental triumphal arch; calm, majestic, expressing tranquillity in the rhythm of its arches and its symmetry, and at the same time almost chaotic, with elaborate, deep-carved friezes, slim shafts of different-coloured marble, complex capitals, some with windswept palm leaves, heavy classical cornices, bright mosaics, and the door and window arches framed with the goudron frieze, a decorative element found on several buildings in twelfth century Jerusalem, possibly of Armenian origin and popularly referred to as the pillow arch.
There are more beautiful church facades in Europe, but none that are more emotionally moving, and not merely because of the significance of the church itself. As architecture, it is theatrical, as indeed are all great cathedral entrances, but its architectural language and its surroundings make it more so than most. The eclectic combination of East and West is not found in any other church in Europe or in the Latin East, and the drama is accented by the approach to the church through narrow, crowded lanes and stairs, similar in a way to that most theatrical approach to the famous Nabatean mausoleum, the al-Kazneh at Petra that is reached via a steep and narrow, natural ravine (Siq). Like the al-Kazneh, the church is entirely cut off from view until, turning a corner it is suddenly there in front of you, and the effect is breath-taking.