The capacity to grasp the transcendent in this fashion has transformed through history. In the premodern world it was difficult to conceive of meaning or purpose except in relation to God, or gods, or as aspects of the universe itself (though there were major strands in ancient Greek, Indian and Chinese philosophy that attempted to understand this in a purely human way). Hence, transcendence was inevitably seen in a religious light. But with modernity it became increasingly plausible to imagine purpose and meaning as humanly created. Indeed, as the French philosopher Denis Diderot claimed: "If we banish man, the thinking and contemplating being, from the face of the earth, this moving and sublime spectacle of nature will be nothing more than a sad and mute scene." It was "the presence of man which makes the existence of beings meaningful".
Diderot was a leading figure of the Enlightenment. But this new kind of sensibility had begun to infuse western art and music from well before the 18th century. From the late medieval period on, "sacred" art became increasingly humanised. The German critic Eric Auerbach called Dante, in the title of a famous study, a "poet of the secular world". Dante's Divine Comedy, despite its focus on the eternal and immutable features of heaven and hell, is at heart, Auerbach insisted, a very human exploration of this world.
The Divine Comedy, Auerbach observed, was very different from previous explorations of heaven and hell. In these earlier visions, the dead were either immersed "in the semi-existence of the realm of shades, in which the individual personality is destroyed or enfeebled" or else the good and the saved were separated from the wicked and damned "with a crude moralism which resolutely sets at naught all earthly relations of rank". In Dante's other world, on the other hand, the souls retain their this-worldly forms and thoughts and desires and sins and virtues. "Their situation in the hereafter," as Auerbach puts it, "is merely a continuation, intensification, and definitive fixation of their situation on earth, and what is most particular and personal in their character and fate is fully preserved." The human takes centre stage in the Divine Comedy, in a way that had not happened previously in Christian thought. In this, Dante looks forward to the poets and artists of the Renaissance and beyond, to Michelangelo's David and Adam, to Botticelli's Venus, to Shakespeare's Hamlet and Falstaff.
A century after Dante penned the Divine Comedy, the Dutch artist Dieric Bouts painted "The Entombment". Among the Renaissance masterpieces in London's National Gallery – the Bellinis, the Botticellis, the Raphaels and da Vincis – Bouts's work may not stand out. Yet there are few paintings in the gallery as moving, or that tell so well the changing conception of the sacred.
Completed around 1450, and probably designed to be part of an altarpiece, "The Entombment" depicts a traditional theme – the burial of Christ after crucifixion. As he is lowered into the tomb, Christ is held by Joseph of Arimathea, who reverently touches the body through a linen cloth that partly covers it. By Joseph's side, and behind Christ's body, stand the three Marys – Mary Salome, Mary of Clopas and the Virgin Mary. Bouts has painted them, one from the front, one from the left and one from the right. One wipes her tears, another covers her mouth, the third, the Virgin Mary, holds Christ's arm to place it gently in the tomb. She is supported by John, whose haunted face reveals both terror and despair. Nicodemus, a secret admirer of Christ, lowers the feet into the tomb, while the repentant sinner Mary Magdalene looks up into the face of Christ – the only one of the women to raise her eyes.
"The Entombment" reveals not simply the story of Christ's burial but also the struggle of the artist to bring that story to life. We can see on the canvas the artist's striving to present both Christ and the mourners not just as placeholders in a particular story but also as real people with whom viewers can find an emotional as well as religious identification. Bouts's aim is to arouse in his viewers the same emotions of grief, reverence and wonder as those depicted in the painted figures. The mourners are dressed in contemporary clothes and the softened blue and green hues of the painting reflect the sense of sorrow and loss. Joseph, John, Nicodemus and the Marys wear their grief not as symbols but as real pain. Compared to later Renaissance religious painting, the gestures of Bouts's mourners may seem a little stiff and stylised, the emotions a bit static. Yet it is in this very stiffness that we see Bouts's struggle to depict both Christ and the mourners as real humans.