Almost by chance I recently happened to witness two similar scenes: a 15-year-old girl who was engrossed in a book of art reproductions, and two 15-year-old boys who were enthralled to be visiting the Louvre.
The parents of all three were nonbelievers and the teens were raised in secular countries; that lack of religious background clearly affected their ability to appreciate the art they were viewing.
The teenagers could understand that the hapless individuals in Theodore Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa,” had just escaped a shipwreck. And they could recognize that the characters portrayed by Francesco Hayez in “The Kiss” were lovers.
But it was difficult for them to fathom why Fra Angelico portrayed a girl talking to a man with wings in “The Annunciation” or why in Rembrandt’s “Moses Breaking the Tablets of Law,” a gentleman who looks rather down-at-the-heels but has beams of light shining from horns on his head, is bounding down a mountainside carrying two heavy stone tablets.
Some parts of Nativity scenes were familiar to these young people because they had seen similar icons in the past, but when three men wearing cloaks and crowns were included in a crèche, the teens had no idea who these men were or why they were there.
It’s impossible to understand roughly three-quarters of Western art if you don’t know the events of the Old and the New Testaments and the stories of the saints. Who’s that girl with her eyes on a plate? Is she something out of “Night of the Living Dead”?
In many countries, schoolchildren are taught everything about the death of Hector but nothing about St. Sebastian, and perhaps everything about the marriage of Cadmus and Harmony but nothing about the wedding at Cana. In others, they cram students’ heads with the Stations of the Cross while keeping them in the dark about “the woman clothed with the sun” who appears in the book of Revelations.
The worst cases of befuddlement often occur when Westerners (and not just 15-year-olds) come across religious icons from other cultures — which happens increasingly often today as they travel to distant countries and people from those countries settle in the West.
I’m not talking about Westerners’ puzzled reactions when faced with an African mask or laughter at the sight of an enormously fat Buddha. The fact is that many shake their heads in disbelief when they learn that Hindus worship a deity with the head of an elephant, yet find nothing odd about portraying Christianity’s divine personage as a dove.
Much of the confusion could be avoided if schools would provide students with basic information about the teachings and traditions of the various religions. To say that this isn’t necessary is tantamount to saying that we shouldn’t teach children about Zeus and Athena because they’re just characters from fables meant for little old ladies in “ancient” Greece.
Limiting religious instruction to the point of view of a single creed (for example, as happens here in Italy) is dangerous. Pupils who are nonbelievers (or the children of nonbelievers) will opt out of such lessons and thus miss out on learning even a minimum of fundamental cultural elements. And usually any useful mention of other religious traditions is excluded from the lessons.
In Italian public schools, the weekly hour of optional religious instruction is led by Roman Catholic teachers paid by the state. It could be used to hold ethical debates on respectable subjects such as our duties toward our fellow man or the nature of faith, while still omitting the kind of information that would enable students to tell Raphael’s Fornarina from a repentant Mary Magdalene.
My generation in Italy studied much about Homer and nothing about the Pentateuch (the first books of the Hebrew Bible). In high school the lessons on the history of art were awful, and in lit classes they taught us all about the Florentine poet Burchiello and nothing about Shakespeare. But despite this we got by, because the people and culture enabled some of this information to reach us.
That said, the plight of those 15-year-olds I was talking about, the ones who didn’t recognize the Three Wise Men, suggests to me that our vast information network conveys fewer and fewer facts that are truly helpful and more and more that are totally useless.
Umberto Eco via NYT