Images left to right:
Artist of Prague workshop, Pieta, c 1400. Destroyed during Reformation and found beneath Bern Minster in 1986
Unknown Artist, The Sack of Lyon by the Calvinists in 1562, mid 16th century via Lyon History Museum
Unknown Artist, Relief Sculpture at the Cathedral of Saint Martin, Uthrecht, Netherlands, destroyed in 1566
Visual, physical and musical language was and is our foundation as human beings long before we wrote scriptures or developed theology. The Visual Arts used to be an essential means by which the Church and society understood the Christian Story, the Creation, each other and God.
One of the gifts of the arts is to refresh our perspective; physiologically, mentally and emotionally. A healthy society is one that values the arts. In order to develop unity and cultivate peace, an artistic perspective helps us to engage with diversity-finding connections with what is different, perhaps even strange. Without this openness of mind a society and its people become closed, they stop seeing diversity as a positive, they look at the “other” as someone to be feared; they look at difference as an aberration.
It was a closed mindset that was responsible for the bodily and cultural damages that European colonial expansion perpetrated upon the peoples of the New World. It is no co-incidence that Columbus was set sailing across the ocean blue by the same monarchy that instituted the Spanish Inquisition. European settlement of the New World was dominated by a politicized version of religion combined with mercenary power and greed. The era of colonization was the same that oversaw the demonization and desecration of sacred art all over Europe. (Britain alone lost over 95% of its art.)
Protestantism was destroying art as idolatry, and Catholicism was set on countering the Reformation by flooding the world with religious images. The culture wars of the Reformation trampled upon ancient traditions. Europeans who were destroying and propagandizing their own religious traditions were not going to recognize the dignity and worth of the new cultures and peoples they encountered as they explored and colonised the world.
A near sighted, rigid mindset is dominating and closing in on our world today. This mindset is challenging the well being of our environment, the rights of Indigenous peoples, of refugees, of the 2SLBGTQ+ community, of women; and has set itself against the sciences and the arts. It cultivates polarization and extremism in our civil discourse; it has taken over the cultural narrative through consumerism and utilized advertising and capitalism to its own ends. It despises the poor and distorts the gift of wealth into a greed that refuses to see art, nature and people as an entities to be cherished, let alone acknowledging them as means to access the revelation of God.
The Indigenous peoples of Canada, (the Indigenous peoples of any land) value the relationship between the arts, the sacred, creation and community. So valuable is that connection that governments and churches were determined to eliminate their culture from the minds and hearts of Indigenous peoples. The great wound of colonization is not only physical; as well as bodily abuse, the soul is devastated. Cultural genocide is soul genocide.
The healing work of Decolonisation also means that the colonizer needs to salve their own culture. We might support the healing of our First Nations neighbours, but unless we rediscover the deep connection between artistic expression and our own soul health, we are still in the snare of colonial attitudes and behaviours. To live as though the arts are optional, or a utility to promote a religious or political agenda, is nothing less than the continuation of a destructive mindset.
The gift of the visual arts is of particular relevance when applied to healing our relationship with soul. How we look at the world is so valuable that corporate capitalism- today’s colonizing empire- has focused on capturing our visual attention more than any other. Healthy vision depends on depth and detail, slow looking and contemplation. The Visual Arts can teach us to approach images as a means to nurture connection with nature, with each other, and the sacred.
Ironically, by paying attention to the process of restoration in the very cultures it sought to destroy, there might be a hope to revive to Settler society a sense of soul. We cannot deny that healing is happening for Indigenous peoples through the rediscovery and nurture of artistic expression and practices. We can see how those practices restore confidence, identity, strengthen the body, and ground communities not only in the spirit but also the earth.
We who are learning to decolonize our own Settler-Colonizer inheritance need the same medicine.
“ With art, we can create meaningful shifts in relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and support systemic and structural cultural, social and economic change towards decolonization.”