Religious faith has inspired many artists over the millennia. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and Handel’s Messiah spring to mind immediately, as do the pyramids of Egypt and Maya, and other mysterious monuments like Stonehenge and the Easter Island moai megaliths.
Art has been an ideal medium for hiding religious symbolism and messages during times of persecution, misunderstanding, and conspiracies. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code has had us all studying Leonardo Da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks, Last Supper, and Mona Lisa more carefully than ever before. Tibetan monks have used sand mandala painting as a teaching tool for centuries. Books and paintings can be destroyed, but a transient art form, by it’s very nature, has more permanence by the necessity of each student memorising it completely.
Meeting religious leaders has also proven inspiring to writers like former Nazi party member, Heinrich Harrer, who wrote Seven Years in Tibet, the true story of his time with the Dalai Lama before Chinese occupation and his exile to India.
The rich symbolism and contradictions of religion makes it a tempting subject for many literary authors as well. The Autograph Man, Orange prize winner, Zadie Smith’s second novel, uses the Jewish Kabbalah as its inspiration. In Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie explores the complications of losing, seeking, and changing one’s religious identity. CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia reveal the literature professor and author’s fascination with the similarities of the symbolism of different religions, while his Screwtape Letters satirises the personification of evil in religion.
The mysterious and darker sides of religion have inspired filmmakers in particular, who find it hard to resist a story that utilises their special effects experts to their full potential. Audiences have gasped at the enigma of spontaneous wounding in Stigmata, and the mystery of codes revealing the secrets of the universe contained in the Torah in Pi, the brutality of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and the devils and demons of movies like The Omen, The Exorcist, and The Devil’s Advocate.
Hollywood often takes great leaps of imagination when it comes to turning religion into entertainment. Movies and TV series’ such as The Craft, Practical Magic, Bewitched, and Charmed, have given many a distorted but popularised vision of witchcraft and paganism. But the creative folk in the special effects department are still having all the fun.
This article was first published on BellaOnline in June 2006. © Elsa Neal