In the United States, we tend to think of it as an age-old guiding principle basic to our governing philosophy - the separation of church and state. Yet some 225 years ago when our constitution was first drawn up, it was a fairly radical idea. In 1794, a French artist by the name of Pierre-Antoine Machy painted Festival of the Supreme Being. The painting is a huge landscape depicting thousands of people gathered in a field stretching as far as the eye can see (almost what you'd call a peoplescape). Near the centre is a tall column, topped by a statue, honouring the "Supreme Being." The festival was held under the orders of the French dictator, Robespierre, who ruled for a time immediately following the French Revolution. At the festival, the "God of Liberty, Father of Nature" was honoured at the "Altar to the Nation." Hymns were sung to republican virtue, good citizenship, and the glory of France. The event, in fact, marked the birth of a state religion. The movement was short-lived. It died when Robespierre was beheaded less than a month later.
In art, we tend to think in terms of two classifications - religious, and secular. But, in fact, in the years since Machy's epic depiction, there has evolved a third area, lodged somewhere between these two, that's often referred to as "alternative" or "visionary" art. In the years that followed, there was a trend in art to search out pantheistic visions, principally among English and German painters, such as Philipp Otto Runge as seen in his Spring Morning dating from 1808. It depicts dawn in the form of a nude woman - Aurora - greeting a new-born child below her while a brilliant light plays a regenerative role much as it often does in Christian iconography.
Later in the nineteenth century, English artists such as William Blake began to explore a highly personalised reading of their Christian beliefs, while in Germany, artists such as Runge and Caspar David Friedrich painted images worshipping nature in a pantheistic celebration of a divine presence in flowers, trees, water, and air. But it took the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859, and a new clash of religion and science, to spur painters such as Paul Gauguin to begin to look for more evolved alternatives to traditional European Christianity. His Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?, painted in Tahiti in 1897, depicts the birth of a child (reading from right to left) in a primitive Polynesian cultural panorama ending with the death of an old woman, all presided over by two women and a blue idol. He writes in one corner, "simple beings in a virgin nature, which might be the human idea of paradise."
Gauguin was only the first Western artist to explore primitive religious iconography. Some of Jackson Pollock's early works such as Totem, Lesson II, dating from 1945, delve into an abstracted view of archaeologic and hieroglyphic symbols as he explored the religious culture of Native Americans. About the same time, Marc Chagall crossed religious lines to reinterpret the crucifixion from a Russian-Jewish perspective. Barnett Newman later broke new ground in "religious" painting in depicting Jesus, during his crucifixion, as abandoned by God. And today, the search for alternative religious visions in art goes on under the label of what has come to be known politically as multi-culturalism - a term that is an anathema to the religious right. Maybe those battling in the education arena for the teaching of morality based strictly upon Christian fundamentals in our state-supported schools should take a renewed look at Machy's Festival of the Supreme Being.