I would never have thought that political power and art would have such a great intersection until being here in Italy. Walking along the streets of Florence, Pisa and Lucca, it is impossible not to notice the impact of religion on the social and political life of the Renaissance period.
Today in the west, legitimate sources of power for a state leader are often through democratic institutions and processes, accompanied by political, academic or corporate achievements. While religion and bloodline may confer power to some, this power is often kept separate from governance and politics.
Yet, during Machiavelli’s time, the Church was able to wage wars on other states. Even within Italian states, religion was a way in which the rich expressed their power. They donated to the Church and in return secured burial places in sacred buildings or had religious buildings built in their name. This was accompanied with a belief that doing so would lessen their suffering in the afterlife. Paintings and sculptures were not simply for aesthetics nor narration, but symbolized wealth and power.
Last Friday, I found myself among some influential statemen and policymakers as part of the European-American Security Workshop. These people were public servants, military generals, corporate leaders, who could influence international politics and conflicts. Among them was not a single religious figure.
Although we can be thankful that today in the US religious institutions and the state is kept separate, however, this may not be the case across the globe and we have to continuously be aware how our religion, ethnicity and background may informally confer us power or deprive others of it.
Formal institutions are not the only way that power and privilege are conferred to people. The stereotypes and perceptions that influence the way we treat others also contributes to power dynamics in society. We must not stop thinking about how power and privilege is distributed and have to courage to fight injustice even if the injustice might have been to our own benefit.