Professor Mary Beard broaches the controversial, sometimes dangerous, topic of religion and art. For millennia, art has inspired religion as much as religion has inspired art. Yet there are fundamental problems, which all religions share, in making god or gods visible in the human world. How, and at what cost, do you make the unseen, seen? Beneath all works of religious art there always lies conflict and risk. And the result is often iconoclasm – the destruction of works of art – which Mary believes can lead on to new forms of creativity.
Mary Beard visits sacred sites across the world to examine the contested boundaries between religion and art. She goes to the temple of Angkor Wat and to the Tintoretto Crucifixion in Venice, to Buddhist caves of Ajanta and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, as she seeks to break down the conventions that make some religions of the image, while others are seen as hostile to artistic representation. She shows how all faiths (and their artists) face the same fundamental problems of treading a careful line between glorifying god in images and blaspheming by daring to represent the divine.
She ends at the Parthenon in Athens. This is a building that has been in turn a pagan temple, a Christian church and a Mosque. Now, as a monument to Western civilisation itself, and tourist pilgrimage site, she asks us to wonder what we now worship – how far we look at civilisation itself with ‘the eye of faith’.