Probably the oldest purpose of art is as a vehicle for religious ritual.
Humans are visually oriented animals, gaining much of our information through the sense of vision, and an extension of storytelling is found in the visual arts, in murals, mosaics, paintings and sculpture. Once the cultural heritage of various religious groups became solidified through standardized visual expression of their stories, their forms were maintained with little change. Consider the history of the depiction of the Buddha. At first, the Buddha was only indicated by his footsteps and a halo of light, since he had entered Nirvana and was no longer physically representable. But the believers demanded to see a person, so Buddhist art evolved into paintings and sculptures of a well-rounded, benevolent Buddha, either sitting in the lotus position, or standing, or lying on his deathbed. Later on, jewels and gold leaf were added to huge statues to express the preciousness of the Buddha. He had been turned into a deity. Since a person obtaining enlightenment is supposed to be neither male nor female, the Buddha figures always combine male and well-rounded female elements.
As a contrast, consider the established image of Jesus in Christian churches. He is a tall, slender Caucasian with a long face and nose. No images ever show a pudgy, short, swarthy Jesus. In deathbed hallucinations, Christians will see such a Jesus figure, while Buddhists will see the image of a Buddha. These established images were created by artists.
Some religions, like Hinduism, depict their gods and goddesses as super-human—Shiva has many arms as a sign of his supernatural powers, and Krishna is always painted blue, in contrast to human skin color—but Hinduism also reveals a deep subconscious knowledge of our genetic animal heritage in its half-animal, half human gods: Ganesha bears the head of an elephant and Hanuman is a god in monkey form. Africans and Native Americans use intricately crafted masks in animal shape, animals that may be prey and predator. The abilities of animals are thus transferred symbolically to the ritual dancers. The Middle Eastern goddess of fertility, Cybele, has eight breasts. Even Islam, a religion wary of traces of paganism, has a myth of Muhammad riding to heaven on his half-human horse, Al Borck.
Christian churches are filled with human figures, only rarely animal ones. The Judeo-Christian religion emphasizes the belief that humans are essentially different from animals, often regarding animals as evil brutes. The figure of the devil has hooves, horns, and a tail. The snake and dragon are signs of evil, whereas other religions see these as benevolent. The only positive animal-human creatures are angels, human figures with all kinds of wings. Artists had a free-for all in inventing ever-new configurations for angel wings.
Without preserved religious art, particularly the funereal arts, we would know much less about life in ancient times. Since humans have a concept of a past and future, life after physical death has been in the foreground of religious wonderings. Tombs often are equipped with articles and depictions of every day human lives to help the deceased in an imagined afterlife. Just consider the magnificent Chinese clay warriors! The primary, long lasting edifices of religious architecture were tombs. These range from masonry-reinforced underground funereal chambers to the giant proportions of pyramids and of the stupas and pagodas of the Far East. These structures are artful witnesses to the tremendous life force in all creatures, which in humans creates visions of a life after death, sometimes benevolent, sometimes frightening.
The "Houses of Gods," monumental temples, shrines, and cathedrals, are another aspect of religious architecture. The practical purpose of sacred structures is to provide an inspiring meeting place for worshippers and an abode for priests and monks, but at the same time religious architecture is (with the possible exception of palaces for secular rulers) the greatest statement of communal effort beyond practical purposes. There, artistic imagination can flow freely. Religious buildings reach up into the sky, nearer to the gods, becoming the pride and triumph of people who themselves often live in ground level hovels.
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