After attending the conference on Michael Servetus, my wife Phyllis and I took advantage of being in Spain to spend a few days in Madrid. At the top of our list of things to do was to visit the Prado Museum I had visited as a young man 35 years ago.
The Prado is full of “religious” images that I, for one, find pretty tiring. As a minister and president of a religious association, I guess I should have more of a taste for art meant to instill piety. Alas, I get bored pretty quickly when viewing adoring madonnas and pious saints, no matter how masterfully they are done. Almost as tedious are some of the portraits of the aristocracy. (My goodness, Europe had some of the homeliest rulers imaginable.)
However, the Prado is full of what I think of as true religious art, art that speaks powerfully to the human condition. Among my favorites are Diego Velazquez’s pictures of dwarfs (click on the images to the left for a larger version) who were kept as part of the Spanish court. These were not painted for some commission. He painted them because he wanted to. These were people kept around to be mocked, yet Velazquez captures their dignity. He even captures with great tenderness an obviously “mentally retarded” boy. In the presence of the original I felt like I was looking directly into the soul of another. A reduced image on a computer screen can only hint at the power of this work.
There are cautionary tales here as well. Goya’s horrific images of war portray savagery and brutality, not heroics. No sermon opposing violence could be as powerful as Goya’s paintings and sketches. They are deeply unsettling, in no small part because none of us wants to believe that we humans are capable of such things.
I did not go to the Prado expecting to be on a religious pilgrimage. Great art can do that.