Sunday, May 9, 2010

Painting Religion and Mythology in a Global Age

Mythological and religious themes have a long history in the tradition of painting. If one studies the art of the Renaissance for instance, examples of these are quite numerous given the spirit of the time. Artists of that period viewed classical and religious themes in the light of humanistic principles that characterized their time. They represented mythological stories and Biblical narratives in ways that made these relevant to their own experience in place and time. It is not uncommon to see paintings by Raphael or Titian where Roman soldiers in a Passion of Christ scene are represented as Italian soldiers of their own time. In mythological scenes, someone like Botticelli would paint Venus and the graces as women who were considered at the time in Florence to be the most beautiful.  

Archivo:La nascita di Venere (Botticelli).jpg
"Birth of Venus" 
Tempera on canvas by Italian artist Sandro Boticelli 
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So how would an artist today re-interpret old mythological and Christian narratives in the terms of their own time and experience? First of all Christian themes are well known in contemporary western culture to the point that they almost become "cliche". Christian imagery is much more recognizable  than most images from mythology. While Christian Icons have been spread out to the masses, Mythological scenes are mostly found around intellectual circles who enjoy good literature and art. And when mythology leaks out to the general public it does so in the most distorted forms, in films like Disney's Hercules or Clash of the Titans.  When mythological stories are manipulated and distorted we do not suspect a hidden agenda but just lame entertainment. When Christian icons become manipulated and distorted in some way it seems to be done by an artist and with a specific purpose or agenda usually related to the Pop art movement.

 Michael Jackson portrait by American artist David LeChapelle
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 Last Supper by American artist Ron English
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From the angels to the Last Supper, contemporary artists have often appropriated and imbued these well known icons with new interpretations and personal meaning. These artworks can question the assumed religious establishment and prevalent beliefs in our society. They can also serve as a reminders of  old celebrations, practices and stories that need to be retold in contemporary terms. These artistic interpretations can make us aware of the value we place upon mass media, consumer objects and the way we experience pop culture day to day.

"Variantes para una crucifixión"
oil on wood by Guatemalan artist Alfredo Garcia Gill
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But what about myths? Even though popularized in film, literature and art, myths seem to belong to a different realm. We do not treat myth in the same way we treat religion. For religion there is a reverence or irreverence  that people choose or not choose to have. Its almost like taboo and it happens with well. People either keep quite to stay safe or take sides and become passionate about  certain issues. In any case the subject of religion  in art  can become troublesome and uncomfortable to most. This does not seem to be the case with myths. Myths are different. Ancient religions that believed in the existence of many gods are now treated as mythology because no one, except for Neopagans and other New Age sects  truly believes in them.

Pagan high priestess offering a hand shake to a N.C. Bible Believer who refuses her peace gesture while shouting passages of the Bible. For more information on this incident visit:

Not only do we refer to ancient religions with many gods as mythology but also other current polytheistic religions as well. Ever wondered why is Krishna and other Hindu deities are found in books on mythology? For a Hindu, Krishna is as real as Jesus. So why not consider Jesus part of mythology too? We can see mythology is a word with negative connotations that we use to distant ourselves from gods and  other divine entities we do not believe in  and negate as possible truths.

"Jesus Land" 
Oil on canvas by American artist Patrick McGrath Muñiz
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In our modern language we call  myths to anything that is a false story or anything that is not fact. I think this makes a tremendous injustice to the ancient myths of Rome, Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica. Their stories explained natural phenomena and moral teachings with such beauty and wisdom that many of them have deeply influenced our own Judeo-Christian traditions to this day.  For example, the garden of Eden, the devil, the angels, Noah's  ark,  and  a crucified savior born from a virgin along with other stories from the Bible can be traced back to its ancient roots in Babylonian or Egyptian myths. In fact, many of the near eastern religions existing in ancient Rome before and by the time of early Christianity shared similar beliefs and rituals. These religions basically told the same Jesus story with a few variations.  "Mythological" figures such as Orpheus, Mithra, Adonis and Dionysus as well as others had much in common with our Christ including a birth from a virgin, miracles, crucifixion, resurrection and promise of salvation through their sacrifice.
As Saint Augustine once said:  "Whatever has been rightly said by the pagans, we must appropriate to our uses".
2nd century amulet depicting the crucifixion of Greek god Dionysus to learn more about this and other similar myths I recommend watching the first part of the movie Zeitgeist at:        
 Mythology is very much present in our imagination as well as the way we experience the world today. Many of the stories and archetypes of heroes, villains and gods are still being projected onto celebrities, politicians and even forces in nature. There seems to be a  innate human need to find the divine or supernatural in the  world around us. From comic book heroes to the way we call our our planet, mother Earth, as if we were referring to the ancient Greek goddess Gaea., we not only anthropomorphize nature, we deify it.
"Gaia Altarpiece" Oil on canvas 48" x 48" By French American artist Elsie Russell To see more of the artist work visit:      
Monotheistic and Patriarchal religions have repressed polytheistic tendencies in the past but  it has been unable to stop it from reemerging  specially since Neo-platonist  early Renaissance. In this global age that we live in, I cannot think of a better language than that of myths to describe whats happening all around us. If we use the term "myth" in the modern sense, we can say that live in an age of myths. There is the myth of "green corporations"  with their "green washing", the myth of  a "global village", the myth of "borderlines countries"  and the myth of a  illuminated populist leader that will save us all.  Today there are  many myths about beauty, culture, art, justice, war,  sex, food, energy and many other issues that consciously aware artists should address in their work. As a painter who is constantly adapting sacred Icons and symbols to reinterpret old stories in contemporary terms I find the world of myth infinite in sources for inspiration. That is the reason why I have decided to adapt and incorporate the language of myth into my new work and here is one example of what my new work is starting to look like. On my next blog i shall present and explain my current artist statement.
"Obamus, the Light Bringer"
Egg tempera and gold leaf on wood triptych 18" x 13" (2010) 
by artist Patrick McGrath Muñiz
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All text on this blog is  copyrighted material© by the artist and author Patrick McGrath Muñiz