. . . we experience religious music and art.
Here's a snip from a nice essay on how the religious dimension of Bach's music often eludes modern listeners.
Modern performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s magnificent vocal works, his passions and oratorios, take place in almost sterile environments: plain churches, functional concert halls with audiences that listen attentively while focusing on the music’s aesthetic pleasure.
This mode of listening, which emerged in the 19th century, was quite foreign to Bach and his contemporaries. Bach’s sacred vocal works were composed for the Lutheran liturgy. They were part of a long worship service and embedded among biblical readings, hymns sung by the congregation and an hour-long sermon.
Bach’s music and these other elements were thematically related, and they provided a polyphony of voices that eludes the modern listener. Consider the passions as an example. A listener who witnessed the first performance of “The St. John Passion” in 1724 would not only have heard the words set by Bach but also interpretations of the death of Christ in framing hymns and in the sermon that separated the two halves of the passion. In a modern performance, we normally use the time between the two parts to stretch our legs or to have a quick chat with our neighbor.
. . . .
The religious language of Bach’s time was drenched with emotional images: Christ as the bridegroom, the believer as the bride; the heart as the dwelling-place of the divine; the relationship of God and mankind was understood as a sign of deep love.
We find this language all over Bach’s works: “The St. Matthew Passion” begins with a majestic chorus that welcomes the suffering Lamb of God as the “bridegroom,” and later the soprano sings in a deeply emotional aria “Out of love my Savior is willing to die.” In the “Christmas Oratorio,” the alto admonishes the church to prepare for the arrival of the “bridegroom” and later we hear the bass sing, “Tell me, most beloved, how may I glorify you?”
(Markus Rathey, "The Religious Heart of Bach's Music," wsj.com, May 6, 2016)
Mr. Rathey is identified as a professor of music history at Yale University and president of the American Bach Society, and as the author of “Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy” (Yale University Press, 2016)
The same phenomenon changes or limits the way modern audiences see Christian art from medieval times and the Renaissance. Diana and I recently visited the great museums of Los Angeles. Listening to experts talk about the great church art of the past reminded us that most modern art patrons see Christian art has cultural artifacts, no different, really, from the religious art of the other cultures displayed nearby. These patrons can study the art, but they do not and cannot share the intended experience of the art, as statements of a specific faith to which they also hold.
Here are some sample images from three of the four museums we visited.
How do you see this great art? As something to study? Or something to believe?