Art and theology: Some nineteenth century correlations in france

Michael G. Lawler

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The human animal is a meaning-seeking animal. Social and personal meaning is a basic need of all men and women of all times and places. In any given cultural context this meaning is articulated in a variety of forms. This essay is about two of those forms, art and theology, and their correlations in nineteenth century France. Every articulation of meaning develops within two poles. One is the wisdom of the past, the other the historical situation in which men and women live and to which they must respond. At any given time in history one or other of these poles may dominate the other. The insistence on reduplicating the achievements of past masters may be called academicism, in theology as in art. The insistence on the historical situation may be called modernism, in art as in theology. The holding of both in creative tension may be called in art, as Paul Tillich called it in theology, correlation. This essay examines the correlational meanings articulated by art and Roman Catholic theology in nineteenth century France. The century is divided, on theological grounds, into three periods: 1801-1832, 1832-1870, 1870-1907. The first period is a “Roman” period. The Republic, the architectural Romanization of Paris, the classical painting of David are matched theologically by the classical Roman theology of Chateaubriand, De Maistre and De Lamennais. The second period is a period of romanticism groping towards realism. Romantic art is exemplified by Delacroix, realistic art by Courbet. Romantic theology is exemplified by Gueranger, Lacordaire and the French push toward the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, realistic theology by Montalembert. In the third period the human subject is seen as an active creator of meaning rather than as a passive receptor. The impressionists introduced this theme to art and made it legitimate. Loisy and Le Roy attempted to introduce it, with significantly less success, to Roman Catholic theology. The concrete analysis pursued in this essay, which is an analysis of selected exemplars of many which could be adduced from the histories of art and theology, as well as from the histories of music, philosophy and the sciences, indicates that art and theology do not proclaim meanings in isolation from one another. Rather they proclaim it in a context which is created for both by an academic tradition and an historical situation and the creative tension between them.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)501
Number of pages1
JournalJournal of the American Academy of Religion
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1977

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Religious studies


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