Soltes links art, religion and politics in ‘eternal triangle’

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

Ellie Haugsby | Staff Photographer
Dr. Ori Soltes considers the interrelated roles of art, religion, and politics during a 3:30 p.m. lecture in the Hall of Philosophy on Monday.

“What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs in the evening?”

If the average Chautauquan didn’t know the answer to this riddle, he would have been punished by the plague in Sophocles’ play “Oedipus the King.” What he also probably didn’t know was that this riddle highlights an “eternal triangle” of art, religion and politics.

In Sophocles’ story, Oedipus solves the Sphinx’s riddle with a simple answer: a human in the beginning, middle and end of life. As a result, Oedipus was hailed a hero for saving the town of Thebes after the Sphinx was forced to kill himself. This play represents a tie between art and religion, said Ori Soltes, the director of the Chautauqua Discoveries series this week and Week Six.

Chautauqua Discoveries is a program run by the Athenaeum Hotel. In addition to leading the program this year and last, Soltes has served as the theologian-in-residence for Chautauqua’s Department of Religion and has spoken in the Amphitheater several times in the 14 years he has been visiting. Soltes teaches theology, philosophy and art history at Georgetown University.

Soltes used his customized background to present a lecture Monday called “The Eternal Triangle: Art, Religion and Politics.” He began his lecture by telling an ancient Samarian myth about creation and destruction as two sides of the same coin. In this religious story, a mother goddess who personifies uncontrollable waters and floods is killed, and her destruction creates the earth.

This story was acted out, not simply told, creating an unbreakable link between the story and the audience, but also between religion and art, Soltes said.

“Religious ritual was theater and theater was religious ritual,” he said. “The one interwove the other … and served the purpose of our relationship with the gods.”

Greek theater also often linked art and religion in two related ways. The first is that Greek theatrical storylines often were about religion and linked the audience to their relationship with the gods. More directly, theater was under the patronage of the gods.

The link between art, religion and politics is more difficult to make, but does exist. Often, religion and politics were the two primary subjects that theater engaged, Soltes said.

Louis XIV of France was known for, among many things, his patronage for the arts and adherence to the theory of divine right of kings. Louis XIV furthered the arts in France and was called by some the “protector” of the French Academy and of French artists and writers.

The divine right of kings directly linked Louis XIV’s political power to his religion.

“(Divine right stated that) I rule because God wants me to,” Soltes said of Louis XIV. “That idea and its interweave of art goes back to that idea that through art, we can trace politics, religion and art.”

A statue of Augustus depicts him as the commander of the Roman army, his political position, with an image of Cupid at his feet, representing his religious role and his mythical ancestor Venus, Cupid’s mother and the goddess of love.

This piece of art connects Augustus’ political and military accomplishments to the fact that he was descended from Aphrodite, Soltes said.

As Soltes took the audience from Louis XIV and Augustus through the changes of Christian art during the Renaissance, he arrived at the complexity of the Vatican in Rome, an establishment that is simultaneously political, religious and artistic.

More recent theater works, like Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” link art to politics in obvious ways and allow viewers to take in both art and perspectives about politics.

“The question becomes the dynamic balance between … the political leadership and … the role of religion as an ‘I religion’ and the role of religion as an ‘everyone’s religion,’” Soltes said. “How does that get interwoven … and to what extend do we carry that beyond the gates (of Chautauqua)?”

The lecture did, in fact, ask questions that many Chautauquans had not considered. Austin Swanson, a regular Chautauquan, said he had made the connections between the gods and the kings, the wealthy and the powerful, but had not articulated them.

“(The lecture) really came alive to me in the last 15 minutes,” Swanson said about the examples of the Vatican and Arthur Miller. “He helped firm (those connections) up.”