For the Holidays, When My Beloved Relatives Demand a Defense of the Humanities

This post was written by Ivy Griffiths, a Humanities Center student fellow.


In our ever-future-oriented society, choosing to study the humanities over a STEM alternative is often seen as a less productive option. If you wanted to do something of “real importance”, you would choose something that could advance the economy or build new technologies. When I first came to study at Brigham Young University, I felt that as a woman with STEM potential, I had an obligation to enter a STEM-related field of study. After some internal wrestling, I decided instead to declare a major in Art History and Curatorial Studies.

The more I have studied, the more I have come to realize that we need the humanities. If we want to study things of importance, what is of more importance than learning about people and cultures throughout time? What is more important to our future than finding out what has motivated the great societies of the past? Why isn’t a study of people and emotion and thought regarded as important as learning to make bridges or vaccines or planes? For me, studying the humanities has been one of the most important things I could ever do. It has been one of the most influential catalysts for growth in my life.

As far back as I can remember, I have yearned for a personal relationship with God. Growing up as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I often heard my parents and leaders I respected testify of a God who loved them personally and unconditionally. I have spent years searching in faith, trying to learn how I could feel and build that personal relationship with the Savior myself.

It turns out that what I needed to help me in this endeavor was to study centuries-old (Catholic) Christian art. I am not Catholic. I was not born in 1397. And yet, learning to read this old, foreign art is helping me draw closer to my Savior.

Art History teaches that there is much more to art than superficial intrigue. An artwork is another document that, when you learn how to read it, can inspire deep thought. This is particularly true with art of the Medieval Period and the Northern Renaissance. Almost exclusively religious in nature, art from this period evolved decade after decade, century after century, to help viewers learn of and connect with their Savior in a personal way. The art developed the power to expound on doctrine and make connections that spoken or written language couldn’t.

This is what I needed: another way to study my Savior.

A sentiment I heard a few years ago and keep close to my heart is that while I may believe that my church has the authority of God and the full truth, that doesn’t mean it has a monopoly on all truth. Christ taught us to exercise humility; we should always be willing and eager to learn from others. As a church that professes to have been in operation from the time of Christ’s mortal ministry, Catholicism has had centuries to investigate the life of Christ. It makes sense that I could (and should) learn something about Christ from them.

One Catholic painting I have learned a lot from is Rogier van der Weyden’s 1436 oil painting, Deposition.

This large painting depicts life-size figures grieving over their dead Savior as He is taken down from the cross. As I examine the Virgin Mary, I notice that her veil is twisted, perhaps as a result of anxious hands that could do nothing to stop the soldiers from driving nails into her son’s hands and feet. She has fallen to the ground, her body imitating that of her holy Son. In Catholicism, there is a concept of the “Compassion of Mary” that often presents itself in art. When Simeon blessed the Christ child in the temple, he prophesied to Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul, too” (Luke 2:35). Catholics take this to mean that in a similar way to how the spear pierced and broke Christ’s heart, Mary’s heart would be so full of empathy for her Son that it would metaphorically break, and it would feel as if she were crucified alongside Him.

Seeing the empathy of Mary, I feel invited to take time and ponder the agony Christ went through. I imagine what it would feel like to watch someone I loved dearly willingly go through torture. And then I realize that’s what this art is meant to do for me. Christ was personal to Mary, but He is also personal to me. Standing in front of this large work, examining the disciples’ somber, tear-streaked faces, I suddenly find myself in a frozen narrative, outside of time and place, fraught with emotion like Mary Magdalene (far right) as I realize that God died for me.

I notice Nicodemus (in a luxurious, patterned coat) looking through the piercing in Christ’s hand. His gaze draws an implied line diagonally across the composition, through both of Christ’s pierced hands, through Mary’s hands, to the skull in the bottom left. Legend tells that Adam and Eve were buried under Golgotha, and with the blood that dripped down from Christ’s bleeding body, they were baptized. The Fall was reversed! Christ was the new Adam, freeing man from the confines of death and sin.

Through a study of Deposition, I see the Atonement of Christ in a personal way. How glorious that He should do this for me! God, almighty creator, came to earth to die for me, a fallen child of Adam and a sinner.

I come from a society obsessed with progression. Are the humanities not essential for progression? It is only through my study of art history that I have found a new way to learn of and draw closer to my Jesus. To grow in the present, we must learn from the past. Is it not something of “real importance” to study a field that builds up the soul?

(Rogier van der Weyden, Deposition)

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