A (Very) Brief History of Art and the Church [Part I]

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The Christian Church has a long and varied heritage when it comes to art.[1] That being the case, it is instructive for us to briefly understand some of the issues involved. This will help us better grasp the Church’s present situation when it comes art.

Christians, at first, as a small unpopular and often persecuted group did not produce works of art that were distinctly Christian or had an impact on secular culture. Early Christian art mainly used pagan vocabulary to express Christian sentiment.[2] “Until roughly A.D. 200 most visual imagery was found in catacombs, the burial places (and sometime hiding places) of Christians.”[3]

“In the third century, as Christianity become more established, marble imagery appeared, though it continued to portray the same images used by the early Christians.”[4] However, the biggest change came with the conversion of Constantine the Great (in 312), the Roman Emperor, and the Edict of Milan (in 313) when Christianity was granted religious toleration within the Roman Empire. After the edict, Christians were free to publically display their faith through art and architecture. After this period we begin to see Christian art flourish.

By 574 we see amazing buildings with huge mosaics depicting scenes from the Old and New Testament  being dedicated (like San Vitale). The murals and mosaics were especially important because many people were illiterate and did not have Scripture in their language (e.g. the Mass was in Latin). Although, images were helpful in promoting worship some also saw the use of images as dangerous.

“Images, no matter how discretely chosen, come freighted with conscious or subliminal memories; no matter how limited their projected use, they burn indelible outlines into the mind… Images not only express convictions, they alter feelings and end up justifying convictions.”[5]

One of the dangerous, for some, was the veneration of icons. There are three stages in the development of icons. First, “As the emperor’s image represented the presence of the emperor, Christ’s image, or the image of a saint, came to serve as a kind of ‘proxy’ for their presence.”[6] These images assisted the veneration of the saints. Second, there was a rise in the use of imagery in private devotions. People began to go on pilgrimages to shrines or churches. “The third stage occurred at the end of the seventh century, when portraits or images of Christ and the saints began to appear as isolated frontal figures” and “by the beginning of the eighth century it had become common practice to venerate these images, which meant that honor paid to the image honored the person represented.”[7]

These developments brought controversy to the Church. “The practice in the East of venerating the image of Christ inevitably caused those accustomed to a more symbolic orientation to react. Christians who opposed the use of images in worship generally felt that these objects marginalized the work of Christ.”[8] In fact the controversy got so bad that in 730 Emperor Leo II destroyed the “images of Christ, his mother, and the saints.”[9]

Clearly then, the Church took art and the use of images in various forms very seriously.

“The icon… was much more than an aesthetic image to grace the church and stimulate holy thoughts. It was something that expressed deeply held theological convictions, and it was meant to move the viewer to love and serve God. In many respects, an icon was theology in a visual form, and the practice of making an icon itself represented a spiritual discipline.”[10]

However, did the Church cross the line of making idols that were so clearly and vehemently condemned by the prophets in the Old Testament (e.g. Is. 44:12-20)?

During the Early Renaissance, “a renewal in the arts was closely connected with reform movements that began springing up throughout western Europe.”[11] During this period many massive cathedrals were built (e.g. Salisbury Cathedral and Reims Cathedral).

“These great structures, which must have been extremely impressive amid the modest building around them, not only became the center of the social and religious life of the community but were actually intended to be a microcosm of the world. An image of the last judgment was frequently located over the central portal of the cathedral…, reminding those entering of God’s judgment, which was avoided only by eating the holy Eucharist. The space of the church represented the ‘ark of salvation.’ On either side of the portal were images of the prophets and apostles, on whose word rested the hope of God’s people.”[12]

During this period there were also seeds planted that would eventually rise up and challenge the extravagance of the Church and her art. We see this for example through the work of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic of Spain. For example, Francis and Dominic emphasized simplicity and mission.

Next, we will look at the impact of the Reformation on art within the Church. But at this point, it will be helpful for us to see what we can learn from what we have seen from history so far. So, here are a few questions to consider: 

  1. What are some dangerous to avoid when it comes to art and the church?
  2. What do you think about the extravagance of the church?
  3. What concerns should we have?
  4. What takeaways for our modern context of cinderblocks, cement, lights, and lasers?
  5. How did art serve the purpose of the early church?
  6. Can art still serve the purpose of the church? If so, how? 
  7. What should we be cautious of regarding art and the church?

__________________

[1] For a brief and interesting introduction see “The History of Liturgical Art.”

[2] William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith, 26.

[3] Dyrness, Visual Faith 26.

[4] Ibid., 27.

[5] Thomas Matthews, The Clash of the God, 11.

[6] Dyness, Visual Faith, 35.

[7] Ibid., 35.

[8] Ibid., 36.

[9] Ibid., 37.

[10] Ibid., 37.

[11] Ibid., 38.

[12] Ibid., 39-40.

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