How Art Changed History


Henry VII had a problem. He had just taken the throne from Richard III, one of the “sons of York,” and faced uprisings. What did he do? Employ art, of course!

Medieval imagery combined history, religion, philosophy, and astrology into dualistic themes intended to cement an agenda. It was common for writers of the period to employ abstract concepts and ideas in conjunction with “lower humor” (such as crude or sexual imagery) to appeal to the masses as well as educate them. The Church employed similar imagery (hell, heaven, divinity, virtues, vices) intended to draw people closer to salvation. And monarchs were known to tie their ancestry to ancient gods to further their “right to rule.”

There is no more interesting exploration of this than in the wedding of Katharine of Aragon to Arthur Tudor. Henry VII was a shrewd man who never moved without intent. He took the crown by force and had to defend it from many claimants of York and Plantagenet blood. His first act as king was to marry a York. He then named his first son Arthur, which linked him in the minds of the public to his “ancestor,” the King of Camelot. This imagery carried over into the wedding pageants. His carefully written plays linked Arthur with Camelot, and his son’s Spanish bride to Saint Catherine. To avoid negative associations with Arthurian lore (infidelity, incest), they also drew parallels between Arthur and the brightest star in the northern sky, indicating a bright future for England. The most elaborate production symbolized his similarity to God, by referencing the parable about a king arranging a marriage for his son, which is an allegory for the Kingdom of God, reinforcing a God-like respect for Henry in the public eye. It was imagery-driven propaganda at its finest, and it worked.

The Reformation caused art to divide from the divine, and imagery fell from use outside Catholicism. Unfortunately, the Reformists linked symbolism and imagery to pagan idols and destroyed much of the medieval art with the dissolution of the monasteries (in which Henry VIII stripped them of their wealth to fill his treasury and finance his ongoing war against France) and ceased to use it as a form of communication. It is a lost art form. You will still see it in heavily theological or symbolic works such as The Lord of the Rings and the writings of intellectuals throughout literary history (from Erasmus and Thomas More to G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis), but much modern art is devoid of it. One exception is Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The film is an example of medieval symbolism in story form, with Notre Dame (a building) representing God’s Judgment (a concept). Frollo is Fallen Man seeking Salvation Via Self-Righteous Piety, which draws him further from Divine Love and casts him into Hell. It is moralizing pageantry. Its dark themes, including lust, shocked audiences on its first release but is a perfect interpretation of iconic storytelling via art. Not only did the writers decide to tell a medieval story, they told it in the way medieval storytellers would tell it! (The Passion of the Christ is an even more obvious medieval form of storytelling.)

The division of art from symbolism and daily life strikes me as fundamentally wrong. God is an artist. He is our Creator, and made us in His image. We are a living piece of art, and ought to reflect creativity in all aspects of life. In the Middle Ages, people understood that we are spirit and flesh, divine and fallen, that our worldview should be holistic, not divided. Our worldview should bleed into our art and lives, not be compartmentalized. Symbolism and deeper meaning were a natural part of their lives, easily understood and shared. Faith, deed, and worldview were not separate. The culture was saturated in meaningful art. The peasants might live cruel lives, but they could still enter a great cathedral and think of the majesty of God in the vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows.

If less entertainment was just entertainment, and more of it was art, how might our society shift and change for the better? ♥

Art by Lesley Mackenzie.

7 thoughts on “How Art Changed History

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  1. Beautiful post, Charity! I have not yet had a chance to watch Hunchback–I really, really need to do that. (I have listened to some of the music, however; and “God Help the Outcasts” is my favorite Disney song ever.)

    G.K. Chesterton was one of the most brilliant authors in the history of the English language. THE END.

  2. Fantastic post! It’s interesting to think that the blossoming of Renaissance art in European culture, was shortly followed not long afterward by the Reformation, and the subsequent break between Catholic and Protestant culture. For better or worse, this would shape English (and by extension early American) views toward faith and art–and whether the two could be mingled. Early American churches were often devoid of decoration or music, both being associated with European decadence.

    Yet art is actually one of the few means by which even non-believers speak of feeling, or thinking they glimpse a God.

    What’s interesting is that stories for children, including most of the Disney films, contain symbolism, as well as powerful themes of good and evil. The same thing for many classic stories that are popular to this day (or will be, like Harry Potter). You can see this to a certain extent even in films and novels of science fiction. Like the dystopian stories of people trapped in a dry and dreary world, and then breaking free from it, and from the lies of the corrupt government, express an aspect of how we feel today.

    1. I had a discussion the other day of how the Puritan faith in the Americas was devoid of any kind of art or beauty whatsoever — plain, boring churches full of plain, boring benches. Hardly reminiscent of the glories and majestic artistry of the Creator. That was “separation from Catholicism” taken a degree too far into rigid fundamentalism. Unfortunately, it then built up by degrees over the centuries into Protestants being actively disengaged with the culture — thus we now have very few Protestants either in judicial or legal positions or in the entertainment industry. The rich complexity of religious art entrenched in symbolism is now left primarily to Catholic writers and filmmakers, which explains why “The Passion of the Christ” is so much more intellectually and artistically complex than most of the Protestant-written and filmed stories about Jesus.

      The symbolism bleeds through anyway, but it’s always much richer where it was intentional. “Harry Potter” contains a lot of intentional symbolism… as does Narnia, Middle-earth, and many other fantasy stories. But what about creating art with symbolism in it that is not of a fantasy genre? Wouldn’t that be cool?

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