Soltes discusses historical intersection of art, politics and religion

If one were to imagine a Venn diagram of arts, politics and religion, Ori Soltes’ entire Interfaith Lecture would lay in the three circles’ shared space.

Speaking Monday from the Hall of Philosophy, Soltes delivered his lecture, “Sometimes Strange Bedfellows: Art, Religion and Politics.” Soltes, the Goldman Lecturer in theology and fine arts at Georgetown University, said that the three concepts have been intertwined since early human civilization.

“Since as far back as you can trace human history, art and religion have interfaced,” Soltes said. “As far back as you can trace the parts of human history that we can access through written texts and through images and art, we realize that politics and art — and politics and religion — have interfaced.”

In a detailed lecture, Soltes traced the intersection of arts, politics and religion from biblical times to the present day. Starting with the Greeks, Soltes cited works by Euripides and other classics as some of the origins of the fusion.

According to Soltes, he was by no means the first one to find the three subsets to be intertwined. Soltes said Aristotle wrote about the political importance of the era’s tragedies involving political uprisings and revolt. Aristotle believed the plays formed an outlet to channel political angst for unhappy citizens, thus preventing an overthrow.

“They leave the theater relieved of the burden of all that anger, and the polis is retained in its stable and comfortable position rather than it being the subject to all kinds of chaotic uprisings,” Soltes said, explaining Aristotle’s outlook.

Moving forward into the Common Era, Soltes discussed depictions of Jesus Christ and the political implications of their evolution over time. He said artistic expressions of Christ changed according to mainstream society’s understanding of him — from a seditious zealot to a religious icon.

“The language of Christian art as a religious language will evolve so that if I look at Christian art in the first, second or third centuries, I’m not going to find images of Christ crucified, because the Romans were crucifying thousands of people as political subversives,” Soltes said. “Enough time has to have passed until the relationship between crucifixion as political punishment and the role of Christ and of Christianity have separated before I can use that image as a image of Christ.

He continued with a more explicit and straightforward example, analyzing Dante’s Divine Comedy.

“Just think of Dante, who in the early 14th century is writing a whole, enormous, three-part poem about hell, purgatory and paradise in which all his political enemies end up in the inferno, and people who are his good buddies end up in paradise,” Soltes said. “So it is a work of art that overtly reflects on his political sensibilities.”

Likewise, after the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church began a Counter Reformation to lure Protestants back to Catholicism, Soltes said. Out of these attempts came Baroque art and architecture.

“Baroque arts and architecture is a symptom and a symbol of a reflection of the ambitions and intentions of the Counter Reformation,” Soltes said. “Nowhere is that more obvious than if you set foot into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.”

While a temptation of modernism is to consider contemporary society to be beyond such trends, Soltes closed citing examples today involving modern political sources of tension including the Arab Spring, today’s Cuba, and the Israel-Palestine conflict as sources of stellar contemporary art.

“Anywhere you look where there is political conflict in the world, you’re likely to find artists engaged in responding to it,” Soltes said.