Introduction: How should we think about art? Why has art had such a varied history? What explains why we can relate to both “sad reflective art” as well as “joyous exuberant art”? How does art in its various forms sometimes make us yearn for something that seems out of reach?
I believe as we look to God’s Word as our guide we will be able to make some significant observations that will better position us to answer some of those questions. In the coming posts, we’ll consider seven ways the Christian worldview informs how we think about art…
First, Consider the Creator
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” (Gen. 1:1). He made atoms and oceans, sunsets and frogs, butterflies and hogs. He made matter and motion, the stars in space and every trace of sand. He made my hands and yours too. God made flowers and bees. God thought up nectar and the neurons that make emotion.
I appreciate this from Steven Pressfield in The War of Art:
“The following is a list, in no particular order, of those activities that most commonly elicit Resistance:
1) The pursuit of any calling in writing, painting, music, film, dance, or any creative art, however marginal or unconventional.
2) The launching of any entrepreneurial venture or enterprise, for profit or otherwise.
3) Any diet or health regimen.
4) Any program of spiritual advancement.
5) Any activity who aim is tighter abdominals.
6) Any course or program designed to overcome an unwholesome habit or addiction.
7) Education of every kind.
8) Any act of political, moral, or ethical courage, including the decision to change for the better some unworthy pattern of thought or conduct in ourselves.
9) The Undertaking of any enterprise or endeavor whose aim is to help others.
10) Any act that entails commitment of the heart. The decision to get married, to have a child, to weather a rocky patch in a relationship.
11) The taking of any principled stand in the face of adversity.
In other words, any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity. Or, expressed another way, any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower. Any of these will elicit Resistance.”
Beauty. What is it? Dictionary.com says beauty is “the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else.”
Roger Scruton asks, “Why do we call things beautiful? What point are we making, and what state of mind does our judgment express?”
“The nature of beauty is one of the most enduring and controversial themes in Western philosophy, and is—with the nature of art—one of the two fundamental issues in philosophical aesthetics. Beauty has traditionally been counted among the ultimate values, with goodness, truth, and justice.”
The Christian Church has a long and varied heritage when it comes to art. 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. “Until roughly A.D. 200 most visual imagery was found in catacombs, the burial places (and sometime hiding places) of Christians.”
“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.” 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.”
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.” 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.”
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.” In fact the controversy got so bad that in 730 Emperor Leo II destroyed the “images of Christ, his mother, and the saints.”
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.”
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.” 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.”
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:
- What are some dangerous to avoid when it comes to art and the church?
- What do you think about the extravagance of the church?
- What concerns should we have?
- What takeaways for our modern context of cinderblocks, cement, lights, and lasers?
- How did art serve the purpose of the early church?
- Can art still serve the purpose of the church? If so, how?
- What should we be cautious of regarding art and the church?
 William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith, 26.
 Dyrness, Visual Faith 26.
 Ibid., 27.
 Thomas Matthews, The Clash of the God, 11.
 Dyness, Visual Faith, 35.
 Ibid., 35.
 Ibid., 36.
 Ibid., 37.
 Ibid., 37.
 Ibid., 38.
 Ibid., 39-40.
So, what is art? That is a difficult question. Let’s look at some examples I’ve gathered. Art is…
…according to a dictionary:
The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance
You cannot define electricity. The same can be said of art. It is a kind of inner current in a human being, or something which needs no definition.
~Marcel Duchamp , French painter and sculptor
…imitation or creation
Art is the unceasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers – and never succeeding.
~Marc Chagall, Russian-French artist
…creating beauty or harmony
Filling a space in a beautiful way. That’s what art means to me.
~Georgia O’Keefe, American painter
Art is harmony.
~Georges Seurat, French painter
…an expression of our innate desire to decorate
The intrinsic decorative urge should not be eradicated. It is one of humankinds deep-rooted primordial urges. Primitive people decorated their implements and cult objects with a desire to beautify and enhance… it is a sense emanating from the urge for perfection and creative accomplishment.
~Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Swiss multi-media, applied arts, performance artist, and textile designer
…something that reveals the essential or hidden truth
Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.
~Paul Klee, Swiss painter
…a blessed mistake, a misfiring
Art is like the feathers of a peacock; there is no ultimate reason for it. It is nothing more than a leftover impulse from our distant ancestors. It is a mere signal to potential mates that we have enough time, resources, and leisure to be able to waste time on extravagance.
~This seems to be the Darwinian view (cf. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 253)
To give a body and a perfect form to one’s thought, this—and only this—is to be an artist.
~Jacques-Louis David, French painter
…a source of calm in a chaotic world
What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.
~Henri Matisse, French artist
Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos.
~Saul Bellow, American novelist
…self-expression or autobiography
What is art? Art grows out of grief and joy, but mainly grief. It is born of people’s lives.
~Edvard Munch, Norwegian artist
All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.
~Federico Fellini, Italian film director
…communication of feelings
To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced, and…then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling—this is the activity of art.
~Leo Tolstoy, Russian author
Art has to move you and design does not, unless it’s a good design for a bus.
~David Hockney, British artist
Art begins with resistance — at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.
~André Gide in Poétique
Above all, artists must not be only in art galleries or museums — they must be present in all possible activities. The artist must be the sponsor of thought in whatever endeavor people take on, at every level.
~ Michelangelo Pistoletto in Art’s Responsibility
…according to my favorite definition:
“One individual personality has definite or special talent for expressing, in some medium, what other personalities can hear, see, smell, feel, taste, understand, enjoy, be stimulated by, be involved in, find refreshment in, find satisfaction in, find fulfillment in, experience reality in, be agonized by, be pleased by, enter into, but which they could not produce themselves…
Art in various forms expresses and gives opportunity to others to share in, and respond to, things which would otherwise remain vague, empty yearnings. Art satisfies and fulfills something in the person creating and in those responding…
One person’s expression of art stimulates another person and brings about growth in understanding, sensitivity and appreciation.
~ Edith Schaeffer in The Hidden Art of Homemaking