AT THE FOOT OF THE CROSS; 1846; OIL ON CANVAS ROBERT SCOTT DUNCANSON; AMERICAN; 1821-72
Pastor Bob, before leaving on his sabbatical, posed this question to me: Why does the church need art?
The answer is twofold: the first being found in creation itself. God formed humanity in his own image, the infinitely creative God gifted us with creativity and imagination. The ability to create was not given so that we could become small gods usurping his place, but so that we could reflect his glory more fully. The second part lies in the visual arts themselves and their potential as vehicle to be used by the Holy Spirit in our continuing sanctification and in our worship. Visual art has a unique ability to act as a counterpoint to verbal exposition. Words are used by those God has gifted as teachers, to explain and define the complexity of the Gospel, to nail down ideas and bring them close. Images are used by those God has gifted as artists, to expand and illuminate the intricacy of the Word, to display and revel in the mystery and transcendence of God.
The protestant church historically and the evangelical church more recently, have a somewhat complicated relationship with visual art. While, as a whole, Evangelical churches eschew religious imagery and are minimally decorated, a hold-over from the iconoclastic tendencies of the Protestant reformation, imagery and visuals are still a strong part of our worship and our devotional lives. We read passages and sing songs that conjure up pictures in our minds, most often influenced by what we have previously seen. For many of us, Jesus in our minds eye wears a white robe and a blue sash, and image cemented in our minds from numerous Sunday school illustrations, flannel graphs and hand -outs. To me Moses will forever look like Charlton Heston as he brings the tablets down from the mountain. Why is this? As human beings we are profoundly visual creatures. We recognize people and things long before we have the words associated with them. Many of the words we use are meant to convey a mental image. Through description and metaphor, in poetry and prose, we understand visually even as we think verbally.
VISION OF THE SERMON (JACOB WRESTLING WITH THE ANGEL); 1888; OIL ON CANVAS PAUL GAUGIN; FRENCH; 1848-1903
This visual primacy, inherent in our human condition, is combined with a longing for beauty and a desire to create. These are gifts from our Creator, and part of what makes us Imago Dei. The desire we have for beauty should not be dismissed as merely vanity, although it can be warped by sin and performed as such. Jonathan Edwards in his essay “On the Nature of True Virtue” defines two types of beauty. The first beauty he defines is primarily spiritual, one that is synonymous with virtue, goodness and love, justice and mercy, patience and courage. This first beauty is apparent when the workings of this world and the actions of people are in accord, in harmony with the will of the Most High. This first beauty is the beauty of God himself, and here on earth it is found in righteousness.
The second beauty, defined by Edwards who sees our gravitation toward beauty as an instinct given by God, is primarily physical. It is the aesthetic and harmonious arrangement of features or elements that when viewed together create pleasure in the viewer. It is found in God’s creation: the symmetrical arrangement of features on a face, the arrangement of textures and colors and shapes in a landscape, the filtering of light through trees. It is found in miniature as we who are made in the image of the Creator live out that image in our creating: in the configuration of notes that make up a melody, the choreography of graceful movements in a dance, the carefully planned composition and color of a painting.
The visual harmony that defines earthly beauty is a representation, a visual analogy, of the harmony that defines spiritual beauty, the beauty of God and the unity of Father, Son and Spirit. God, as he created this world for his glory, the enjoyment he takes in himself, transposed that glory in creation as beauty, so that we too, can participate in our small ways, in the pleasure that God takes in himself and in the expression of his glory.
THE GOOD SAMARITAN; 1880; OIL ON CANVAS AIMÈ-NICOLAS MOROT; FRENCH; 1850-1913
Our ability to create art, to create beauty, is a unique characteristic of humanity. When we are creative, when we create, we are acting out our Image in the same way we implement our image when we are merciful or just. If God were not just and merciful, as his image, we could not be just or merciful. If God were not creative, we could not in turn create. Indeed, the bounded nature of our creativity-- God creates from nothing while we are only ever able to create from existing form and matter--further illustrates our good place as God’s creatures.
The act of artistic creation can be an act of worship, and the product of artistic creation can be used by the Holy Spirit to speak to our hearts. Images can act as a counterpoint, a beautiful companion, to verbal exposition. Visual art, because it is open to interpretation in a way that words are not, has a fluidity to be used by the Holy Spirit to prompt emotional connection and response. To look at an image created by another human being is to literally see through their eyes, to see their struggles and what God has laid on their hearts. In this way images are a conduit for empathy, presenting another way of looking at the world.
The early Christian church met in secret and left behind images of devotion on walls of houses and catacombs, small paintings of Christ as the good shepherd, narrative illustrations of Jesus performing miracles, meant to remind the young congregations of the person in whom their salvation lay, and stir feelings of reverence. As Christianity was first legalized and then became the officially recognized religion of Rome, those secret devotional images were replaced by magnificent basilicas, sumptuously decorated with precious material and beautiful mosaics and paintings. Both the subject of the mosaics, Christ enthroned for example, were meant to inspire not only devotion, but awe at the glory and transcendence of God, and to usher hearts and minds out of the mundane world into a reflection of the beauty that awaits Christians in Glory.
Visual art, along with music, performance, literature and poetry, is a good gift from a good God, meant to add fullness and richness to our knowledge, understanding and our emotional experience of the truths of God given to us in scripture.