Why not teach children about religion through art?
From ancient pagan carvings to Michelangelo’s masterpieces, the stories that art has left as a legacy can bring greater understanding of different belief systems
The stories behind religion: Julia Poirier, book conservator with the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle looking a mid-16th century Koran. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times
I have always been sceptical about the position of religion in schools. Teaching the stories of saints alongside more provable subjects makes those stories, and the belief systems that lie behind them, less open to question: it’s an obvious issue when it comes to our more variegated society.
Religious education is not simply teaching about a set of beliefs. It’s also about inculcating those beliefs. Even comparative and world religion classes have the underlying agenda of one faith being right, and the rest being merely interesting.
Aside from that, whatever they’re doing in religion class, they don’t seem to be making it very stimulating. A recent UCC study (by professors Áine Hyland and Brian Bocking), found that only 3 per cent of students take religion as a Leaving Cert subject. So what about simply removing all religious teaching from schools, and leaving it up to the churches and individual families, away from curriculum time? The secular problem with this is, quite simply: what would be lost? Whatever your own belief system happens to be, religion forms the cultural backdrop that shapes a society.
Taking a look at that seldom-studied Leaving Cert curriculum, you find that some of its aims are: “to foster an awareness that the human search for meaning is common to all peoples of all ages and at all times”; “to explore how this search for meaning has found, and continues to find, expression in religion”; and “to identify how understandings of God, religious traditions, and in particular the Christian tradition, have contributed to the culture in which we live”.
Given the scandals that have beset Ireland as a result of the Catholic church’s historical hold over many aspects of society, learning all the above might seem like a good thing – until you come to another stated aim, which is “to contribute to the spiritual and moral development of the student”. So you’re learning how the Christian tradition has shaped our culture, and you’re also learning that it is fundamental to your own moral development. Teaching about ideas is vital in education, but teaching beliefs through the prism of a particular belief system is another matter entirely.
Still, understanding the shaping forces of religious beliefs on culture is vital, even more so as we all have to learn how to share social spaces with people of other belief systems. So here’s an alternative thought for the teaching of comparative cultural beliefs through the world and through the ages: teach them through the stories art has left as a legacy. From ancient pagan carvings, in places such as the Lough Crew Cairns, which involve shapes and patterns that recur through abstract art today, we can learn a great deal about what peoples have believed in, what they have obsessed over, and what they have elected to adore.
Through art, you can learn about the awesome power of God, as well as man’s propensity to narcissism and self aggrandisement, in Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel. You can discover the humanity of Jesus through da Vinci, and explore the rise of secular humanism as the Dutch masters moved away from painting saints and sinners in the 1600s. You can see and feel the twisted moral prudery that shames the body while obsessing over it writ large in paintings of the martyrdoms of the saints: Saint Agatha and Saint Sebastian being favourite examples through art history.
Teaching those stories through art keeps them alive, and has the potential to bring understanding and inclusivity a step closer
Then there’s the pure abstractions of Islamic art and decoration. Islamic belief prohibits images of sentient beings (“aniconism”). The gloriously decorated mosques and carpets that are covered in geometric arabesques and calligraphy can lead you into exploring how figurative images, and the destruction of them, have proliferated through the eras of Christianity as well as Islamism.
Explore more and discover power structures shown through art, including ceramics and carpets said to be so beautiful only monks could look upon them. Seventh century Tang Dynasty mi se celadon-glazed porcelain was kept exclusively for the Chinese Imperial family and for its religious leaders (mi se means secret colour). Indeed it was so secret that, until the discovery of hidden chambers of it at the Famen Temple in Shaanxi, China, over a thousand years later, people considered it a myth.
More prosaically, but still beautifully, in the Renaissance, Gozzoli famously painted figures from the ruling Medici family into his Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem, in the Medici Riccardi Chapel in Florence. Mi se was about excluding, while the Medici were about revealing, but looking at these linked impulses to elevate and to control, through art, brings you to the humanity (and the flawed humanity) behind them, rather than to conclusions about the inferiority and superiority of the different belief systems that backed them up.
Spend time in the Chester Beatty Library and this sense of a common humanity becomes even stronger. Get into the rich visual languages of their wealth of scrolls, objects and paintings and it becomes increasingly impossible to think of the peoples who created them as “other”.
Getting rid of the teaching of religion would mean getting rid of the stories that shape our societies. But teaching those stories through art keeps them alive, and has the potential to bring understanding and inclusivity a step closer. Imagine.