SPIRITUAL VALUES REFLECTED IN EARLY AMERICAN ART

Any examination of spiritual influence on early American art in the English-speaking Colonies must be based on the realization that in exact proportion to the strength of their religious faith most of these early Americans believed that the visual arts should be excluded from worship. This is a phenomenon which it would take many such conferences as this to plumb, but fortunately we are here exonerated from needing to do so because the phenomenon was not in any way an American creation. It was brought to our shores by immigrants, religious sectarians from the Old World.

The taboo was for painting a crippling one, since the most coherent groups of early Americans poured out their emotional, their imaginative, their esthetic selves in their revolutionary worship of God. The sermon was the favorite art form, so passionately enjoyed that some communities needed, in order to have necessary work done, to limit by legislation the number of sermons delivered in a week. "Eloquence," wrote an eighteenth-century American divine, "gives new luster and beauty, new strength, new vigor, new life to truth; presenting it in such variety as refresheth, actuating it with such hidden powerful energy that a few languid sparks are blown into a shining flame." This could describe the effect of great religious painting. When the Rev. John Cotton preached, so an admirer wrote,

Rocks rent before him, blind received their sight,
Souls leveled to the dung hill stood upright.

This could be the subject for a great religious painting. But the painters were not allowed to lift their brushes.

____________________
An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Influence of Spiritual Inspiration on American Art, ed. Mario Ferrazza and Patrizia Pitnatti ( Vatican City: The Smithsonian Institution, 1977), pp. 102-17.

-88-

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