Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 25, 2010
Nigel Aston Art and Religion in Eighteenth-Century Europe London: Reaktion Books, 2009. 320 pp.; 60 color ills.; 190 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9781861893772)

Among cross-disciplinary connections, perhaps none is so elusive, so fraught with traps, as the boundary between history and art history. It is a boundary all the more striking for its invisibility. Art historians typically assume that they are partaking in historical study, that the tools they bring to cultural artifacts from the past illuminate an understanding comparable to that of their historian colleagues. All the greater their surprise, then, when they attend a history seminar or delve into historical journals and discover that their colleagues actually speak a different language and reach sometimes strikingly unfamiliar conclusions. Confusion and misunderstanding can happen in the opposite direction, too. Historians create knowledge about the past typically from texts, and it can seem a small step to translate that knowledge to images and spaces, visual constructions that likewise are products of the past and which ostensibly engage the same concerns.

Nigel Aston recognizes the divide between his discipline—history—and art history, and he notes their differences in the introduction to his book Art and Religion in Eighteenth-Century Europe. He begins by registering his own interdisciplinarity, but reminds his readers that as a historian he brings a disciplinary perspective to the material at hand. That material is this period’s plentiful religious art, and he adds that in being fascinated by it he has been more or less alone among Anglo-American scholars. Certainly he is correct in noting that religious imagery desperately requires additional study and greater emphasis in our growing discourse on eighteenth-century art. One prominent art historian described religious painting to me once as the “elephant in the room” of our field, a characterization still largely true, and it is further true that we risk dangerously misconstruing the period’s visual culture if we assume its religious art to be the etiolated gasp of a dying tradition. Nothing could be less accurate, and the continuing work of art historians like Jeffrey Collins and Christopher Johns, whom Aston cites, demonstrates how religious concerns permeated eighteenth-century culture. Aston likewise is justified to call for a larger rethinking of the century’s culture that draws greater attention to its inherent religiosity and thereby to question Peter Gay’s formulation of the Enlightenment as an essentially secular phenomenon, a concept translated to the period’s art by Robert Rosenblum. Aston’s study has two overarching ambitions: to survey the places where religious art proliferated in eighteenth-century Europe and to recast our understanding of the entire century to account for its religious character. Art, Aston believes, is both the outgrowth of religiosity and the evidence of it, and he is at pains in this volume to reposition religion via art in nearly every sector of eighteenth-century society.

Aston begins by remarking that art history’s secularized view of this era increasingly chafes against historians, who have come to see it as “the truly Christian century” (10), one in which religious belief formed a fundamental component of public culture. Likewise he notes that art-historical scholarship has oversimplified the Catholic/Protestant divide by caricaturing each faith’s supposed reliance upon or aversion to art, and one of this book’s most valuable observations is that Catholic and Protestant attitudes toward art had more in common in this period than is often recognized. After surveying that terrain, Aston’s first chapter discusses the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century predecessors to eighteenth-century religious art, illuminatingly describing how the Counter-Reformational project both continued and changed. He locates religious art within eighteenth-century art theories from de Piles to Winckelmann and traces its importance to multiple faith traditions, making a special point of emphasizing religious art’s flowering during Louis XVI’s reign. Chapter 2 offers a swift rewriting of the century’s entire historical narrative to position religion more prominently. Here again he argues against overemphasizing the century’s secularism and, more controversially, against desacralization in its political culture. In the following chapter Aston discusses the state’s role in promoting religious art, emphasizing its place in monarchy. Aston then turns in chapter 4 to the institutionalized church for a detailed analysis of ecclesiastical arts policies and their relationship to church politics. He also addresses the tension, which he feels is overplayed, between Enlightenment philosophy and Christianity, although he does record that tension and describes aspects of Enlightenment thought that challenged Christian teachings.

Subsequent chapters lead these themes into varied social spaces. Aston provides a chapter on religious art outside of churches, namely in civic and governmental buildings, schools, and hospitals. In the next chapter he explores what might be termed personal devotional art, its elite patrons, its role on the Grand Tour, and its placement in private art collections. In chapter 7 he turns to religious buildings and their contents, with brief sections on different kinds of decoration and ending with a lengthy analysis of English stained glass. Chapter 8 brings Aston to funerary imagery, graveyard sculpture, and mausoleums, as he illuminates the relationship between art, religion, and death, while in the following chapter he explores a fascinating subject ripe for greater attention, namely popular religious art such as devotional prints, ex votos, and pilgrimage imagery. Aston then offers a chapter on the period’s art market, and his book concludes with a meticulous analysis of religious art’s place in the events of the French Revolution. Here he notes that religion and civic ceremony remained fully wedded in the Revolution’s early years and that “dechristianization” occurred at earliest in 1792. He then concludes with a series of observations on how the eighteenth century paved the way for the nineteenth. Aston claims that religious art transformed to meet new economic and political realities under Napoleon, but that it was doomed to marginal status by being “far less purchasable and capable of straightforward display than any other genre” (291). This then opened the door for the vibrant proliferation of popular, increasingly mass-produced religious images to supplant “high art.”

This is a lengthy book packed with information and observations. Aston’s extensive knowledge of his material is grounded in a firm understanding of eighteenth-century religious doctrine and social history, and even more valuably how the two interrelated. Yet art historians will surely notice something missing here, namely any sort of extended analysis of a painting, sculpture, print, or architectural space that reveals how these themes unfold visually. This is particularly striking given Aston’s introductory statements, where he clarifies that his interest lies less with taste or style, but rather representation. “I am, then, concerned not principally with images but the things that images show, in other words pictorial representation” (8). It is hard to rationalize this statement against what the book actually does, since most of the argument developed here is not oriented toward what art shows but rather toward demonstrating that religious art in fact existed and claiming for it great cultural importance. Clearly “representation” means something different to Aston than it might to an art historian. He seems to understand it as an uncomplicated, direct process: art shows what it shows. I would venture that most art historians reading this text will expect it to do more with, and perhaps see more in, the images it presents.

Art historians are of course also interested in pictorial representation—many more so, I dare say, than in issues of style or taste—and in fact understanding the complexities of representation has been a cornerstone of art-historical inquiry for over a century. It is really the central intellectual problem of the discipline, approached from myriad perspectives and with divergent conclusions, all of which share the belief that images rarely speak with the kind of straightforward voice that Aston gives them here. This book offers little sense that multiple layers of meaning might coexist in a visual construction and that a work of art’s intended meaning might differ from its actual effect. This position stems from the larger problem of understanding art’s relationship to its cultural setting. Aston wants to study art “in context” (7), he states (again, a desire widely shared among art historians), but contextualizion is for him mostly a story of harmonious consonance between historical setting and art’s putative subject. Art historians also understand art as historical evidence, but perhaps recognize more readily that art’s potential meanings are diverse, that contradictions among meanings abound, and that imagery’s relationship to its historical particulars is often opaque.

The other concern lies in Aston’s choice of examples. He states upfront that as a UK-based scholar of France, his case studies understandably derive from those national traditions. This is a bigger problem than that proviso allows. This book aspires to broader relevance and treats in passing art from most of the major Western European traditions, but the emphasis remains on England and France. It seems to me that any book treating art and religion in this period should have more to say about Italy, and the question remains whether Aston’s examples can be taken as representative of larger European trends. This is most apparent in the chapter on church interiors, which has not nearly enough to say about the extensive building campaigns of Catholic Bavaria and possibly too much to say about English parish churches.

Art and Religion in Eighteenth-Century Europe is an important book about a much-neglected subject, and it is my sincere wish that art historians read it. It reveals not only the importance of religion to eighteenth-century society but also the potential of art to contribute to that importance. Aston has given art historians his view of a large, intricate, mostly still-uncharted field of immensely rich material. It remains for them to bring the disciplinary knowledge of their field to expand upon, challenge, and nuance the presentation of art and religion offered in this book.

Michael Yonan
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Missouri