Christian Art

Art done by nominal or professing Christians is not a sufficient condition for calling the product “Christian art,” since a Christian's right hand of faith sometimes does not know what his artistic left hand is doing. Christian art must be bona fide art, and the art product itself must by the spirit at work in its colors or sculptured form bear witness to the Lord God revealed in Jesus Christ, if it would legitimately be called “Christian art.” Secular treatment of a biblical topic, like the Crucifixion, does not make the painting Christian art. Church use of a wooden sculpture-an icon of a woman as the Madonna, for example-does not qualify it as intrinsically Christian art. It is also not helpful to constrict the notion of “Christian art” to a given historic style, as if “Gothic” or “baroque” or “Pre-Raphaelite” contours be the definitive model. It depends rather upon whether a spirit of compassion for creation plagued by sin and hope for reconciliation of life to God through Jesus Christ is embodied in the painterly elements.

Within this distinctive guideline one's sense of Christian art should be catholic enough to include: (1) a Roman (Catholic), worldly wise Christian appeal in the line, color, and design of an art product to a higher realm of grace beyond what is naturally visible; (2) an ascetic, (Greek) Orthodox Christian temper to the composition, texture, and color of a painting appealing somewhat mystically to a heavenly spirituality beyond the earthly; (3) the full-orbed, Reformational Christian spirit showing up within the layout, shape, and color of art products calling for a renewed cosmic life under Jesus Christ's rule; and (4) an internalized, evangelical Christian cast to pieces of art that breathe devotional piety and withdrawal from worldliness. The committed Christian spirit that distinguishes painting and sculpture as Christian art from pagan and secular art is not always readily discernible in a given artifact (no more than it is always easily discernible in the daily walk of a Christ- believer), but it is a matter of historical fact that Christian art, as herewith defined, has been extant, in varyingly corrupted forms, especially in Western civilization. Historical development. Early Christians decorated the walls of their catacomb burial and worship places with little figures representing the Good Shepherd, Jonah with the whale, and the like, in a manner derived from pagan Roman imagery. When the Christian Church came above ground in the fourth century with the conversion of Constantine, its architectural art was pressed to be commensurate with the status of a grand, official state religion. From its beginnings, then, “Christian art” was more a concessive modification of current pagan fashion than a radically new start in plastic art internally demanded by faith in the new Gospel of Jesus Christ. Original features showed up, nonetheless: delicate, miniature forms carved into the marble of sarcophagi replaced the larger- than-life, Greco-Roman sculptural tendency; and instead of floor mosaics of marble common to Rome, now shiny glass tesserae, especially glittering gold pieces, were used to cover whole vaulted ceilings and walls of churches, producing an unreal, luminous, ethereal effect.

Byzantine art continued the use of sumptuous, jewellike colors so typical of an Eastern feeling for enthroned majesty and, more importantly, it discarded the illusionistic perspective of pictorial art rooted in pagan Hellenism. The glorious works at Ravenna (the Pantocrator Christ apse of Sant' Apollinaire in Classe, for example) show something new in the West. A Plotinian, Neoplatonizing aesthetic helped Christian craftsmen in the sixth century replace the old, natural, plastic realism with dematerialized figures, flattened space, and luxuriant, green colors that testified, without spiritualizing, to a new earth reality. The mimetic ideal which had chained art to what is three- dimensionally visible got broken; now there was an opening for disproportionately large eyes, abstractly schematized trees, and animals with ornamental colors to celebrate ceremonially, as it were, a life that had conquered and gone beyond our normal creaturely existence weighted down by burdens.

Imaging art was banned by imperial edict in 726. Western Christendom, especially with the rise of Charlemagne, by mid- ninth century did not honor such iconoclasm; but the attendant severity did seem to introduce depiction of Christ's suffering passion into Western art. Independent Celtic monasticism, meanwhile, contented itself with the enormously intricate, decorative embellishment of capital letters copied in biblical manuscripts, spilling over sometimes into margins and whole pages with colorful plants, flowers, and strange, allegorical beasts

related, perhaps, to the later famous gargoyles of Gothic church architecture). Only with the rise of “lay” pilgrimages and beginning of the Crusades in 1095 did sculptured human figures, with flexibly slenderized, softened classical contours, appear in stone again on church exteriors. “Christian art” during this Romanesque period was channeled mainly into cathedral architecture north of the Alps; craftsmen worked with the base plan of a cross to fashion places of height and light proper for worship. (Dogmatic concern on the matter of representation and spirituality was simply unimportant, academic, to them. Architecture, sculpture, and (stained glass) painting of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries canonized the gradual restriction of Christian art to churchly art in a particular way: whether it was the overwhelming grandeur of Notre Dame in Paris, of Chartres, Amiens, the Reims cathedral, or the piteous Andachtsbilder, such “Gothic” art conspired to drown the human believer in an ocean of deeply moving, contemplative stupor. Both the explicit Babel of ribs and flying buttresses and countless pinnacles outside the church and the endlessly soaring lines of ascent inside, as well as the cavernous Pietà sculptures with relic overtones, worked at losing a man in quasi- mystical ecstasy, touched always by a feeling of unworthiness and an uncertain closeness to death. (The Black Death killed half the urban population in some areas of Europe, 1347-51.) So Gothic art is only questionably “Christian,” arousing pity rather than recognition of mercy, exalting an unattainable sublimity rather than testifying of grace freely given, quickening apprehensive awe instead of a firm hope. Gothic art is the culturally powerful embodiment of a devotionalistic disintegration of Scholastic theology and the imperialistic church, and the pious, nondescript beginning of a frank humanism. A less introverted and very chaste humanization of Christian sentiment during the same period is found in Giotto's* murals, where the presence of grace on earth shows up in Christ's solemnity as well as in the golden halos worn by the saints.

The tremendous secularizing spirit of Renaissance culture which arose in Italy and northern Europe during the fifteenth century tended to rub out further the fits and starts toward Christian art begun in the so-called Middle Ages. Masaccio's (1400-1428) deep allegiance to the truths of the Christian faith still showed through in his Bible story frescoes bursting with the rediscovery of actually naked bodies and a foreshortening perspective that spelled a sturdy, this-worldly reality coming into focus. Fra Angelico's* (1387-1455) limpid and breathlessly still Madonnas, Annunciation, and Adorations hold on more tightly to the passing order, the devout severity of monastic vow and quiet retirement away from the bustle of commerce and worldwide exploration. Flemish Jan van Eyck (c.1390-1441), however, typifies the new fascination with perceptible things, with people as personages, with painting in oil the very atmospheric tangibleness of one's natural surroundings (see Weyden, Van Der). Of course, the “supernatural double truths” were iconographically dubbed in, but this left-handed acknowledgment to the realm of grace became an increasingly specious mannerism as the fabulous quattrocento century progressed. Renaissance masterpieces by Donatello, Botticelli,* Leonardo da Vinci,* Michelangelo,* Raphael,* Titian,* and others may have had biblical titles, Christian motifs, and been under the patronage of popes; but their bold, exciting lines, voluptuous colors, and confident show of three-dimensional perspective-greatly extending the expressive reach of painting, sculpture, and architecture-was by and large driven by an utterly worldly spirit, a this-worldly, man-honoring commitment. Art was no longer a means sanctified by the end of instructing the illiterate people of God in other-worldly matters; now art was an autonomous glory itself, wielding its own lordly (secular) authority among the rich and powerful.

Grünewald's (c.1485-1528) Isenheim altarpiece is unique. Technically pre-Reformation, it is unspoiled by a worldly Renaissance grandeur, too rough-hewn and dynamic to be caught in Gothic introspective mysticism; Grünewald's spread-eagled Christ hanged on the cross against a stark blue blackness of sky portrays unforgettably the cursed dead end of sin, while his panel on the Resurrection uses strange, unearthly colors and shifting masses of rock to suggest with startling power the God- man's triumph over death. Other painters in the Reformation period, like Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), also treat the reality of death and distortion, not with the delight of earlier Hieronymous Bosch and his grotesqueries, but with a biblical matter-of-factness that catches the awful finality and punishment character of death without any hope. Holbein, like his German contemporaries (see Durer; Cranach), served the taste of his royal patrons too (e.g., the magnificent portrait of Henry VIII). Like Luther's makeshift alliances with German princes, this development freed artists from the dominance of ecclesiastical commissions, but it opened wide the door for compromises with secular humanism.

The Council of Trent (1545-63) tried to pull art back into liturgical bondage by giving its sanction to “sacred art,” that is, art which by its reverent realism or clear allegorical touches could be used to instruct people in tenets of the Roman Catholic Church. The great El Greco (1541-1614), situated in Spain, inflamed by a visionary, Byzantine ecstasy, epitomizes at its best what the Counter-Reformation wanted (cf. The Burial of Count Orgaz): admission of secular opulence at a lower level, topped by a nervous, metallically colored, austere affirmation of floating, celestial glory. The Jesuits baptized use of baroque art similarly, accepting its sensuous, rhetorical luxuriousness (see Rubens) favored by the aristocracy and so imposing to the masses, so long as it ended by pointing to the sins-absolving office of the church. Art oriented more toward the Reformation, however, as it developed in the Netherlands, took a quite different, Christian direction. The late portraits done by Rembrandt,* the landscapes and interiors of Vermeer (1632-75), Pieter de Hooch, and other Dutch masters, presented in loving detail, pellucid color, and with a quiet, panoramic dignity, both the outdoor world and intimate daily life as a creation able to be filled with shalom. Their canvases never monumentalized scenes, but gave both the cosmos and ordinary, homely activities the deepened dimension of God's ordering presence. Current problems and options. A hardening secularism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment* simultaneously robbed “Christian” of definite, biblical meaning, and divorced “fine art” (cf. rococo style) from the realm of a normal workaday task. With the nineteenth-century advent of a dominant positivism's facticity, art seemed to get lost in esoteric Romantic genius, l'art pour l'art escapism, and the brilliant, sensational irrelevance of Impressionism; “Christian” became increasingly a dirty weasel- word for past holy wars and simple bigotry. Christian art, therefore, was at best considered an anachronism. The Pre- Raphaelite movement (see Hunt, W.H.) seemed to confirm that judgment in its abortive attempt to reconstruct Bible-pure art by undoing the Renaissance. An intense sculptor like Ernest Barlach (1870-1933) and the important painter Georges Rouault* (1871- 1958) demonstrate, however, that bona fide Christian art is possible in our post-Christian age, even though it is desperately difficult for an artist to escape being formed by the total, secularistic, cultural matrix.

Significant art that is harnessed for ecclesiastical service in our day (like some work of Matisse, Leger, Chagall, and many others) is really a forced surrogate for what was done more naturally in the medieval period, and may be less fruitful for Christian art than it appears, for today the hybrid is less integral-the artist seeks a rooted context without bowing to all the dogma of Mother Church, and the institutional church seeks the engagement sometimes merely to show its tolerant modernity. Devotionalistic art consciously conceived for outright evangelistic propaganda, however well intentioned and executed, shall necessarily fall short of Christian art in our differentiated culture, because it denatures the norming symbolic quality of art into a matter of pop illustration. The most fruitful alternatives for Christian art to pursue may well be: (a) a visionary reach, in sorrow, for the real heavenly certainties beyond our technocratized, broken world, pulling on the mask of a Byzantine tradition, El Greco, William Blake, and some of Rouault. Salvador Dali exemplifies a slick, effete secular engulfment of this option. And (b) the Christ- transforming-culture perspective initiated by seventeenth-century Dutch art-too clean then, perhaps, of historical struggle-tuned with grit to the meanness of our hollowed-out lives and the pied beauty visible to the faithful. The earthy insight of certain contemporary Jewish artists, like Abraham Rattner and sculptor Chaim Gross, may give body to the largess of this option.

Christian art is a calling for professionally competent craftsmen, not a fait accompli if one applies certain formulae. That means Christian art has been begun, but will not be wholly perfected until the Lord returns to rule completely. To support the communal, generation-building development of Christian art, for the well-being of society at large, is a mark of the obedient body of Christ.

S.R. Hopper (ed.), Spiritual Problems in Contemporary Literature (1952); J. Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (1953); “Christianity and the Arts,” special issue of The Christian Scholar 40 (December 1957), no. 4; E. Gilson, Painting and Reality (1957); E. Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1957); H.R. Rookmaaker, Gauguin and Nineteenth Century Art Theory (1959); F. Glendenning, The Church and the Arts (1960); P. Courthion, Rouault (1962); C. Seerveld, A Christian Critique of Art and Literature (1964); D.J. Bruggink and C.H. Droppers, Christ and Architecture (1965); D. Whittle, Christianity and the Arts (1966); R. Huyghe (ed.), Introduction and chap. 1, “The First Centuries of the Christian Era,” in Larousse Encylopedia of Byzantine and Medieval Art (rev. ed., 1968); H.R. Jauss, Jacob Taubes et al., “Die klassische und die christliche Rechtfertigung des Hässlichen in Mittelalterlicher Literatur,” “Die Rechtfertigung des Hässlichen in urchristlicher Tradition,” in Die nicht mehr schoenen Kuenste. Grenzphaenomene des Aesthetischen (ed. H.R. Jauss, 1968), pp. 143-85, 583-609; H.R. Rookmaaker, Art and the Public Today (1968); F.A. Schaeffer, Escape from Reason (1968); P.D. van der Walt, Die Calvinis en die Kuns (c.1968); C.D. Carls, Barlach (1969); H.R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (1970); W.A. Dyrness, Rouault: A Vision of Suffering and Salvation (1971); C. Seerveld, “The relation of the arts to the presentation of the truth,” in Truth and Reality (1971).