NAVID KERMANI is a German author and a Muslim. This book is a series of reflections on Christian works of art in the West from his standpoint as a Muslim and modern-minded person. It goes beyond the response to particular paintings however, with wide-ranging reflections on themes that Christians and Muslims have in common, such as prayer, sacrifice, tradition, and the relation of faith to knowledge.
As Kermani himself says, though he has read widely, this is not a scholarly book, and it originated in a series of articles for a newspaper. It is more in the nature of freewheeling, highly personal reflections based on his own experience not only of viewing works of art, but of visiting sacred places and meeting outstanding Christians.
Reading the book elicited two main thoughts. First, how difficult it is for a Muslim to enter sympathetically and imaginatively into the central beliefs of the Christian faith such as the Trinity and the incarnation. It is much easier for a Christian to enter into the beliefs of Islam. For example, if you go into one of the great mosques of Sinan in Istanbul, you cannot help but be taken hold of by a sense of the infinity and unity of God.
Because of this difficulty, and despite Kermani’s having good Catholic friends whom he much admires, there is a polemical element in many of his reflections, in the sense that he is trying to show how untenable Christian beliefs are compared with those of Islam. This is not helped by his uncritical fondness for the apocryphal Gospels, and the way he treats St John’s Gospel in relation to the Gospel of Thomas.
Second, I thought of the failure of the whole Western tradition of Christian art, especially in its absurd attempt to try to picture God the Father, and more generally from the late Renaissance onwards. Kermani draws on Tim Burckhardt to make a distinction between religious art and sacred art, the latter being depictions in which something of the otherness of God is conveyed. “Sacred art expresses a spiritual order in the world, while art that is merely religious in the general sense bears witness to subjective moods, impressions, visions, ideas.”
Western religious art is brilliant at depicting emotions, and it is noticeable that Kermani chooses a good number of Caravaggios, and there is no example of a Duccio or Giotto, where something of the iconic tradition is still retained to give their works a sense of being more than simple representation. It is no wonder that icons have become so loved by many modern Christians, and why modern abstract or semi-abstract art has had such a revitalising effect on Christian art.
Understandably, where Kermani does show unqualified admiration, as many Christians do, is for the 2007 abstract window in Cologne Cathedral, Symphony of Light, by Gerhard Richter.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. He is the author of The Beauty and the Horror: Searching for God in a suffering world (SPCK, 2016).
Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity
Navid Kermani, translated from the German by Tony Crawford
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