However much the products of pictorial art may be despised by learned men in India, today, - as “mere pictures”, - the Painters’ art had a respectable place in all the serious affairs of life - in all stages of India’s history. It was regarded as an amusement or a piece of sentimental luxury - but serious aids to all forms of religious life or spiritual thinking. The priest-painters of the Buddhist church - the austere ascetic- who turned away from all the pleasures and the sensuous enjoyments of life - spent the best parts of their life - in patiently painting on the walls of the ancient abbeys of Ajanta - edifying pictures visualizing the life of the Buddha for the spiritual exultation - of all classes of devotees, the monks, sramans and bhiksus - as well as the pilgrims and the lay worshippers. Even the Lord Buddha himself had sought the aids of the court-painters of King Bimbisara to communicate his message of immortality and to King Rudrayana of Raruka and the people of Saubira. Yet the records of the praise of the painters’ craft are comparatively very few in India against these surviving in the history of painting in the West.
Passing over the two well-known records of Greek and Greco-Roman painting - the records of the medieval churches are full of praise of the painters’ art as valuable aids to the preaching of religion.
The Chronicle of the celebrated Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino records how Desiderius, the Abbot of the Monastery, imported from Constantinople (Byzantium) painters and craftsmen not only to carry out the decoration of the church but to instruct the abbey monks in their techniques and skills.
Theophilus, another Benedictine Monk, in his essay upon various Arts, has recorded his glowing appreciation of the pictorial artist in the service of religion: “If perchance a faithful mind should behold a representation of our Lord’s passion expressed in painting, it is penetrated with compunction; if it beholds how many sufferings the saints have bodily supported, and how many rewards of eternal life they have received, it quickly induces the observance of a better life; if it regards how much rejoicing is in heaven, and how much suffering in the flames of hell, it is animated by hope for its good actions, and is struck with fear by the consideration of its sin.”
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, another Benedictine monk, records the uses of pictures in the service of religion: “Visitors are shown some comely picture of some saint, whom they think all the more saintly that he is more gaudily painted. Men run to kiss him, and are invited to give; there is more admiration for his comeliness than veneration for his sanctity. Hence the church is adorned with gemmed crowns of light - rows of painted saints.”
The famous Abbe Sugar, the Abbot of St. Denis, meditates and sermonizes on the beauty of the painted doors of his church: “Whoever thou art, if thou sleekest to extol the glory of these doors, Marvel not at the gold and the expense but at the craftsmanship of the work. Bright is the noble work, but being nobly bright, the work should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true lights, To the True Light where Christ is the true door.”
The famous Villard de Honnecourt - the Sthapaty par excellence of medieval Europe - the builder, sculptor and painter rolled into one person - has left a ‘ Book of Sketches’ for the guidance of later craftsmen. Some of his sketches of Christian saints are annotated with words of pious devotion which exalt the function of the artists to the level of religious service: “Here you can find the figures of the Twelve Apostles seated. Villiard de Honnecourt salutes you and implores all who will work with the aid of this book to pray for his soul, and remember him. For, in this book one may find good advice for the great art of masonry, and the construction of carpentry, and you will find therein the art of drawing, and painting, the elements being such as the discipline of geometry, (the third discipline of the quadrivium), requires and teaches.”
Duccio, founder of the Siennese school of painting, is known principally for his famous altarpiece, the Majesty, painted for the Cathedral of Sienna between 1309 and 1311. To celebrate the removal of this great work from the artist’s worshop to the high altar for which it was painted, fellow townsmen and clerics formed a solemn procession, of which contemporary chroniclers wrote in ‘extravagant’ words of eulogy: “And they accompanied the said picture up to the Duomo, making the procession around the Campo, as is the custom, all the bells ringing joyously, out of reverence for so noble a picture as is this. And this picture Duccio di Niccol, the painter, made and it was made in the house of the Muciatti. And all that day they sttod in prayer with great almsgiving for poor persons, praying god and his mother, who is our advocate, to defend us by their infinite from every adversity and all evil, and keep us from the hands of traitors and of the enemies of Sienna.”
The art literature of Renaissance Italy is full of praise in favour of painting. But we have space for only one quotation from Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472): “Painting has a divine power being able not only to make the absent seem present, as friendship is said to do, but even to make the dead seem almost alive after many centuries, so that they are not recognized with great pleasure and great admiration for the craftsman. Painting has always been a very great gift to mortals, for it makes visible the gods who are worshipped by the people. It greatly aids the piety by which we are joined to the divine, and in keeping our souls full of religion
Published in Academy of Fine Arts, Indian Museum, Calcutta, December 1950