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Reform Magazine | December 1, 2023

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In the image: Christianity & art

In the image: Christianity & art

From smashing icons to groundbreaking works, Christians have had very different relationships with art. Nigel Halliday explains what he sees in it

For centuries Reformed Christians have had an uneasy relationship with the arts. For some they stood for popery, and were best destroyed. Something like 95 per cent of all English painting and sculpture was destroyed under Henry VIII and Cromwell. Later generations were suspicious of the arts either because they appealed to the senses, or they apparently served no practical purpose. Only images and music that directly served evangelism and church services were encouraged.

Happily, this situation changed a lot over the past 50 years. Christians have begun to understand that the arts are a key way to understand the values and beliefs of our culture. And Christians have themselves begun to get involved in making art that asks questions and presents insights from a Christian perspective.

Creativity is part of our humanity: we are made in the image of the Creator God, and all over the world every human culture is distinguished by its creative expressions in what we call the “applied arts”, such as pottery, metalwork, interior decoration.

However, our tradition of the fine arts is not universal. Its seems to be specifically a product of a Christian culture in the West. Its roots can be traced back to the icon-makers of the Middle Ages, and we still use words like “iconology” and “iconographical” to talk about painting and sculpture.

An icon was an image that pointed the viewer beyond itself towards an object of worship – God, Jesus, Mary, the saints. And even when, at the Renaissance in the 1400s, the arts began to embrace secular and pagan subject-matter, the nature of art did not change. Paintings and sculptures were more than just illustrations: they pointed the viewer towards deeper issues of belief about the nature of reality and of the spiritual world, about fundamental values and commitments.

We see this early on in different ways religious imagery is used. Raphael’s Crucifixion of the High Renaissance pays lip-service to the Christian story, but really it embodies the virtues of classical culture, venerated at the Renaissance. It is all harmony, balance, and peace. Jesus seems more asleep than crucified, as the Greek ideal identifies spirituality with otherworldliness, not with the horror of physical agony. By contrast, Rembrandt’s Descent from the Cross (pictured left), painted 100 years later in Protestant Holland, emphasises the humanity of Jesus, the reality and therefore the significance of his death.

But later in the 18th Century, when Christianity begins to be marginalised at the Enlightenment, the fine arts continue their role of embodying and expressing the culture’s beliefs. And this is where Christians today do well to take seriously what the art is saying.

The Realists of the 19th Century, for instance, consciously embraced the worldview of the Enlightenment, that the only reality we can be sure of is the one we know from our senses. So Monet painted exactly what he saw, as accurately as he could manage. He is rightly revered as a creator of beautiful images. But as a vision of reality it is desperately limited. Post-Impressionists such as Gauguin and van Gogh tried to break out and suggest other aspects of human experience, such as mystery and emotion. But they are very personal visions, and show up how belief has become privatised.

Leaping forward into our own generation, Tracey Emin’s My Bed aroused a lot of controversy for just apparently being her own unmade bed and its surrounding detritus. But, placed in an art gallery, it is a work that continues to touch on fundamental questions of belief and value for an age that doesn’t know what to believe, or even if right and wrong still exist. The empty vodka bottle, the condom packets and the rest of the mess challenge the viewer to make a judgement, but at the same time to ask themselves on what they base their values. And yet the work also seems to concede that there is a judgement to be made: that there are grounds for looking at this mess and asking if something is wrong here.

As well as engaging with works by artists who are not Christians, we can also look with interest at works by artists who are Christians – of whom, happily, there are increasing numbers.

Some artists engage with traditional Christian imagery. They have a big job to do in avoiding being sentimental, kitschy, or just looking out-of-date. But Roger Wagner, for instance, has created some powerful imagery by picturing the Crucifixion in modern settings, while the American artist Bruce Herman has made a powerful series of Easter images in an expressionist style.

Other artists devote their skills to a perhaps humbler, but still very powerful, role of just making us look at the world around us and value it more. As Christians we believe that God has made this world for our enjoyment and his glory, and the artist can often help us to see beauties that we would otherwise miss. We are also called to subdue the earth, a task made much harder by the alienation that comes from our sinfulness. Again an artist, just by the discipline of looking and recording, can help to make the world more familiar to us, and less hostile.

So Peter Smith, for example, did a series of woodcuts of the London underground. They capture moments that we experience everyday, such as walking down a tunnel, or climbing a staircase. But by his careful vision and loving craftsmanship he makes us stop and appreciate our surroundings, and see something beautiful in moments that we are tempted to dismiss as meaningless. Such is the power of his vision that now, when using the underground, I am often conscious of seeing the world “as a Peter Smith”. He has enlarged my vision and warmed my experience – all, in their own way, an expression of a Christian worldview.

The arts are important for church life and for evangelism, but they are much more than that. They are an expression of our God-given creativity, and a way of engaging with the world around us. They are a means of reflecting on our humanity, and expressing our values, beliefs and ultimate commitments.

The arts are not elitist: anyone can enjoy them and engage with them. But like anything that’s worth doing, we have to invest time and energy in order to get into them. If you have artists in your congregation, encourage them by talking to them about what they do, praying for them, and buying their work. And take some time to start reading about the arts, and looking at them for yourself.

Nigel Halliday is an art historian, lecturer and teacher

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