Monday, December 19, 2022

Leaving Church: Who Would Have Thought This Would Be Such a Popular Artistic Subject?

Those who enjoy looking at the wealth of religious paintings from past centuries will find an almost endless array of paintings of the sacred liturgy, the churches in which it takes place, and the people who come and go there.

Sometimes we see a vast cathedral with a Mass taking place at a side altar. Other times we see a solemn Mass at the high altar surrounded by dignitaries of Church and State. Still other scenes might show processions, first communions, weddings, exequies, coronations, professions, consecrations, troops being blessed before combat. The number and variety of such works of art remind us of the centrality of divine worship in the history of the West and its eminent aesthetic appeal.

As I was searching once for a particular image, I stumbled across a painting of layfolk leaving a church building on a sunny Sunday, and thought: "How quaint!" And then I saw another... and another... and another! Further searching revealed that the moment of leaving church after Mass (or some analogous religious service) is among the most popular artistic subjects, especially in the nineteenth century.

One might speculate about why this should be the case. Was it that, as rationalist, materialist, skeptical perspectives gained ground, churchgoing itself began to be more noticed and more appealing as a distinctive subject, perhaps for reasons of nostalgia or from an appreciation of a dimension of life in danger of slipping away? It seems plausible that in an age when churchgoing was taken for granted, artists would turn their attention elsewhere. Could it be something more superficial, like the painter's delight in portraying lovely ladies and dapper gentlemen dressed in their "Sunday best"? Sometimes there seems to be a social statement, as when exiting worshipers are shown interacting with (or failing to interact with) beggars.

Whatever the explanation might be, I decided to collect a portfolio of such paintings and share them here in one place, as I have not found anything like that elsewhere. I realized, once I began the project, that there would be far too many to include, so I have picked a representative selection, including both very famous painters (Sargent, Alma-Tadema, Van Gogh, Picasso) and some utterly obscure minor figures. Most of the images are from Catholic countries; a few show Protestants; and a couple of them show Eastern Orthodox.

I cannot help asking myself: If we had painters who were interested in a humble human subject like this, what would they find if they stood outside churches today and painted the emerging congregation? Would a modern congregation wearing sweatpants or jeans, T-shirts, sneakers, ponchos, hoodies, etc., be worth painting? Would it make a difference if our imaginary painter set up his easel over at an Institute of Christ the King parish? Should he perhaps paint shuttered churches where no faithful gather? How about the gymnasium or unmarked chapel to which the TLM has been banished by Francis? Or maybe the main steps of Chicago's cathedral would offer a dramatic scene.

Well, let us not get lost in such mental byways. In the midst of wintry desolation, enjoy the riot of color and shape offered to us by these wonderful paintings. (Click on any image to see it enlarged.)

Jose Benlliure Ortiz (1884-1916), “La salida de misa en Rocafort”

Charles Edouard Edmond Delort (1841-1895), “La Sortie de la Messe”

Enrico Gamba (Italian, 1831–1883), “L’uscita dalla messa”

Francisco Gras (b. 1878-?), “The Return from Mass, Valencia, Spain” (1920)

Bartholomeus Johannes Van Hove (1790-1880), “A Capricio View with Figures Leaving a Church in Winter”

Nikolai Makovsky (1842-1886), “After Church”

Johann Friedrich Hennings (1838-1899), “After Church”

Cesare-Auguste Detti (1847-1914), “Church Steps”

Samuel Palmer (1805-1881), “Coming from Evening Church”

Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta (1841-1920), “Coming out of Church”

Elias Pieter van Bommel (1819-1890), “Figures at the Entrance of the St. Stevens Church, Nijmegen”

Lauritz Anderson Ring (1854-1933), “People Leaving Church”

Frederick Goodall (1822-1904), “Leaving a Church, Brittany”

Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), “Leaving Church in the Fifteenth Century”

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), “Leaving Church, Campo San Canciano, Venice”

Leon-Augustin L’hermitte (1844-1925), “Leaving the Saint-Melaine Church in Morlaix”

John Bagnold Burgess (1830-1897), “The Church Door”

Ladislaus Bakalowicz (1833-1903), “Two Elegant Ladies Leaving a Church”

Mose Bianchi (1840-1904), “Leaving Church”

Eugene von Blaas (1843-1932), “Leaving the Church”

Alexander Ivanovich Morozov (1835-1904), “Leaving Church in Pskov”

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen”

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), “Leaving Church”

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