I woke up in the morning relaxed - Saturdays are lovely when one has nothing else planned (which hasn't happened to me in a while). I put my tie on (with all the small details like cuff-link buttons), my tweed jacket, my casquette, and my gloves. Coquettely, I made my way along the old streets - the old streets and old buildings predispose one to feel of a different age, of a different culture, of a different time, and of a different interest. And so, I became an art historian for a day - with the tweed jacket, without the elbow patches.
I walked in the museum of art in Brussels today and looked at the classic paintings exhibition. If you were to conjecture that the paintings should reflect the true state of mind of the time, the interest of people, their culture, their thoughts an their fears, their emotions and worries, and their joys, I think you'd have to conclude that spirituality (and by an extension religion) was the topic of the day. The old masters focused on depicting the familiar religious stories - familiar to anyone who has read the Bible (which was, at the time, the book, the story, the history - and yes, not everyone had read it because people couldn't read - but yes, they knew the stories). Or they would weave religious elements with angels, wings, bishops, the Holy Trinity, and ritualistic elements. If you knew the Bible, you knew the stories; if you knew the stories, you knew the paintings. And if you don't, you look with today's eyes: try to make sense of the people and the stories - their search to the eternal answer (what is the meaning of life - there, I've said it). And back then, religion gave them that answer.
There is another topic that often comes up in the classic artists I see in the museum - lust and seduction. For time immemorial (again, see Bible, chapter 1 - creation), relationships between people (particularly romantic relationships) were of a curious topic for artists. In fact, it probably isn't an exaggeration to say that art exists because of love. And then came the renaissance, and the question of religion took second stage. But the arts didn't die - their expression just changed. It now depicts beauty, liberty, war, love (or lust, for the sceptic) itself. Religious expressions in paintings in the 17th and 18th century were no longer flat, no longer idealizing, no longer static. In Rubens' paintings each muscle is textural, each drop of sweat reflects light, each facial expression feels authentic and tangible.
Art came about because people wanted to share their expressions and feelings toward another person or people in a tangible way. A way that speaks not only to the subjects or objects but to the entire world. Would there have been art, were there no love? And here you ask what about the commissioned art - was it also out of love? It was and it wasn't. It gave the commissioner the object he needed that they couldn't do themselves. And it is their love that drives the painter. Could the painter be just a tool as is the brush? Isn't he just the craftsman? Is he the mind that control the hand, while the patron is the heart?