Christianity and the Arts
The Tabernacle was the center of worship for the nation of Israel for centuries, until the construction of the Temple by Solomon. Both included works of art that were symbolic, decorative, and representational, while the Bible makes mention of almost every art form including poetry, paintings, sculptures, music, architecture and literature. Through these examples Christians developed a rich legacy in the arts, ranging from dramatic cathedrals to profound musical arrangements to stunning masterpieces. For centuries it was Christianity that provided the backbone and inspiration for the arts in the West. During that time, we see works of art that are in sharp contrast to the modern era which has its foundation in secularism.
Christianity expanded through the second and third century under heavy persecution by Roman officials. It is widely believed this oppression restricted the development of Christian art, which was limited to simple paintings in funeral settings. The Edict of Milan in 313, which legalized the faith, changed everything. Constantine became the Church’s first imperial patron by financing church buildings, as well as elaborate wall paintings and sculptures. Known as the post-Constantinian era, it would continue through the reign of Justinian in 565 A.D. The basilica was the primary place of worship during these days. They were marked by walls covered with mosaics and frescoes which assisted the worshipper during the service. Their goal was to stimulate a transcendent experience with the divine.
Christian art, which was used to focus the emotions on worship, would soon be used as a source of knowledge for the illiterate masses and would facilitate the union between humans and their creator. Western art moved forward under the guidance and support of the Church all the way through the Reformation, which split the Church, and the Enlightenment, which eradicated God altogether from the arts.
What is Art?
Today the Christian church has been relegated to a minor role in art, a long way from the days of Michelangelo and Raphael. Art has become an elitist sport. It is a sign of sophistication and social status. As we walk the halls of a contemporary museum and see a piece of old carpet splattered with paint or a cross in a cup of urine, the spectator often wonders, what constitutes art these days? If we complain loud enough to those bent on telling us what makes art artistic, we will eventually arrive at the new world order of art culture. They will give us answers like, “Who’s to say what constitutes art?” or “It’s very clever” or “It’s an interesting perspective” or “It is very creative.” But has good art always been that subjective? My iPhone is clever and creative, but it’s not art.
The word “art” has been used to justify everything from sadomasochist pornographic material to terribly demeaning music and movies. In today’s postmodern culture, call it “art” and you get a welcome pass to propagate anything free of criticism. It is one of those labels that silence the critics, and even gets you legal protection under the free speech clause in the Constitution. Giving the arts this kind of leverage and this much range has left many confused about the nature and character of art, in the meantime desensitizing the masses. But the Christian must not fear making a judgment on the artistic value of an object, although it may get you thrown out of the cool club. Even if we concede that some of the stuff we are seeing today is artistic, the Christian must still ask whether it is responsible and edifying, rather than degrading and humiliating, knowing that all the arts have the tendency to influence the recipient, especially the young and vulnerable.
Prior to secularization, art critics and the artists themselves followed clear lines of scrutiny. Art was measured by its aesthetic beauty and its ability to stand alone as a symbolic replication. It displays emotions and ideas that cannot be expressed by words. It enriched our life, while at the same time it had to display craftsmanship, order, unity and meaning. True art always awakens our emotions, be it joy, sorrow, courage, or amazement. Like Bezalel who was commissioned by God to decorate the Tabernacle, the artist to be such had to have unusual talent and ability. He or she displayed knowledge of techniques and methods, often spending decades developing them. In short, if my ten-year-old can make it, it’s not art. That’s not to say that Alyssa cannot become a great artist, but like every other trade, that will take lots of practice, knowledge, and talent.
Nowadays, art is what the artist tells us it is. It can no longer stand alone, as we so often need the artist to interpret it for us. Prior to the 18th century, artists rarely signed their work, simply because the work stood alone as a piece of beauty and meaning. Today, it’s the artist that is worshiped. Britto paints a few dots with bright colors, Andy Warhol paints a can of Campbell’s Soup, Jackson Pollock drips paint on a canvas, and presto, they are worth tens of thousands of dollars. Sign the name Alex Locay on any of those pieces and they are worthless wrapping paper. And while this is true of paintings, it applies to other artistic genres as well. Music is art, if the artist tells us it’s art, despite its lack of harmony and composition. Pornography is defended on artistic grounds. It is said that the grand masters painted nude women, therefore nudity must be artistic. But the truth is these masters drew a clear distinction between nudity for beauty’s sake and nudity designed specifically to arouse the viewer. One is art, the other is pornographic exploitation. Rather than engage these new ideals, sadly most Christians would rather retreat into the Christian sub-culture, without understanding that by ignoring our changing standards they in essence, by default, have become post-modernists themselves.
So we’re left with the question: has secularism been good to the arts or did it fare better under the Christian influence? Well, as we’ll see, through the Christian influence came the medieval style, realism, renaissance art, the baroque, mannerism, and others. Most importantly, through the Christian artists came the greatest innovations in art history, which is the subject of this article. Through secularization we move from rococo to romanticism to impressionism, then to surrealism and finally arrive at abstract art in its many forms. And while I do believe every one of these movements had greats among them, the mass majority of the latter are confusing at best. With the coming of the late 19th century, we see a clear decline in those objective measures history long understood, to what has become a purely subjective trade greatly lacking in talent and depth.
Christian Art Overview
It is hard to dispute the fact that the church was the greatest art patron during the Middle Ages. It was a time when Christianity ruled the artistic enterprise of Western Civilization. What few people know is that it is under the influence of Christianity that we see the greatest innovations and advances in fine art, and as a consequence, the greatest works of art ever to be conceived by mankind. Prior to the Christian influence, paintings were flat, two dimensional, dis-proportioned, and unemotional. By the time the Christian era is over, art is representational, realistic, and profound. It was a slow progressive journey with humble beginnings that spans two thousand years. It has high points like the inauguration of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and low points like the destruction of priceless works of art by Protestants during the reformation. Below we discuss some of those ground breaking innovations that moved fine art from decoration to stand alone masterpieces.
Christian art through history encompasses a wide array of media, including entertainment, literature, music, architecture, carvings, and paintings. Some of these had a profound influence on Western Civilization which would seem almost empty without the musical compositions of Mozart, Bach, and Handel or the literary works of Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare. But Christian art also includes the decoration of functional items such as manuscripts, doors, coins, columns, buildings, and rugs. Those that are solely created for aesthetic beauty, which include paintings and sculptures, are considered the fine arts and the subject of this article.
Byzantine art is the first purely Christian art form. One of the expressions of this style was icons, which were religious portraits, painted on panels in a variety of sizes ranging from life-size to miniature pocket size. They were made of paint, mosaics, silver and gold. Often they were adorned with jewels and elaborate frames. As works of art, icons forged new rules of representational art less concerned with realism in favor of expressing the spiritual power of the person illustrated. Intentionally they lacked perspective, but had very human faces, often facing the viewer directly. Intense colors in sharp contrast filled the panels to produce a majestic work of religious symbolism. The use of icons in religious services would spread throughout the Greek world and then to the Slavic people, ultimately playing a major role in the Orthodox faith.
Mosaic was the next great stride in art history, which came with the Greeks and the Romans who turned the use of miniature cubes into a complex art form. In Constantinople, Ravenna, Sicily, Venice, and Rome under the Christian influence it would become one of the most successful mediums in art history. Mosaics are created by embedding a colored piece of stone, marble, tile or glass into wet plaster. By inserting the cube at a slightly different angle, the artist creates a vibrate effect much like when a diamond reflects light. Basilica of Saint Marco in Venice displays one of the best examples of mosaic art. Started in the eleventh century, this overwhelming abundance of beauty which embellishes every wall of the church took two hundred years to complete. Studded with thousands of pearls, sapphires and emeralds and millions of glass cubes set in gold leaf, the splendor of Saint Marco’s leaves the viewer in awe. Majestic scenes of the resurrection, baptism, nativity, and the crucifixion cover the five domes. The massive arches depict the lives of saints, biblical stories and illustrations of Christ as teacher, law giver and judge.
The first of the Franciscan artists painted Crucifixion for the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence around 1287. With body twisted, head collapsed and blood flowing, the agony of Christ’s sufferings with all its pain is vividly portrayed. The viewer is left awaiting His words, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Cimabue had breathed life into traditional Byzantine iconography.
Duccio di Buoninsegna
The most influential painter among the Sienna artists kept with the flat Byzantine tradition but added a naturalism and intensity not previously seen. His Santa Trinita Madonna shows an expressive and sweet virgin delicately holding Jesus with angels in humble appearance surrounding the throne.
Giotto di Bondone
Giotto Brought a more humanistic side of the sacred stories as well as a sense of space that give the painting the illusion of a third dimension (perspective). In St. Francis Renouncing his Earthly Possessions, Giotto, like a picture, captures the moment in which St. Francis removes his clothes and focuses his whole being on prayer. Anger, frustration, and wariness grip the other people in the painting as they cope with the human dilemma unfolding before them. He is the first to approach his subjects as a sculptural mass inhabiting the space around them. Thus the birth of perspective; which represents three dimensions more authentically. The fresco (plaster) painted in Arena Chapel, Padua of The Kiss of Judas Giotto portrays the emotionally intense encounter like never before. With great detail the work shows Judas about to kiss Jesus in that moment of betrayal as Jesus gazes down at his traitor. This work is seen by historians as the beginning of the Renaissance style.
Our next great artist hailed in the Renaissance style with his ground-breaking work on form and realism. And though he died at 27, he produced enough work to change the course of art for centuries to come. He painted backgrounds so convincing that space seems to appear in three dimensions. In The Holy Trinity with the Virgin and St. John, the fresco which Masaccio painted in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, the perspective of the barrel vault behind Christ is so compelling that Vasari wrote, “There seems to be a hole in the wall.” His grand masterpiece Life of St. Peter is a history of the salvation of mankind through the life of Christ. The work, which took four years to complete, starts with the Expulsion from Paradise, which depicts the eviction from the garden in all its pain, agony, and alienation. Throughout the painting Masaccio gives the backgrounds a new seamless linear perspective. Another breakthrough is his perfect use of shadows which add to the realism he so eloquently portrayed. By perfecting elements such as human form and individual expressions, he achieves new heights in drama, emotions, and power.
Jan Van Eyck
Using a new revolutionary technique which he perfected, oil painting instead of egg tempera, he furthered the use of perspective and raised the bar with his precision. The Adoration of the Lamb is a marvelous altarpiece which contains twelve separate panels. With blood flowing, the lamb stands on the altar, alive with the inscription, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” The Virgin and Child with Canon George van der Paele and Saints is an incredible fusion of artistic talent, beauty, and style. Here we see the virgin Mary enthroned with the Christ Child on her lap.
His style was simple as he continued the innovations in perspective (three dimension) introduced by Giotto. In 1438 he began a series of 50 frescoes containing the life of Christ in the monastery of San Marco in Florence. These were created to aid in prayer and contemplation. In The Annunciation, serenity and peace fill the composition as he displays the fundamental meaning of worship. As the angel appears before Mary, her prayerful pose indicates she is the model of holy modesty. At the same moment, a light shines upon her and she is miraculously made pregnant with the Son of God.
He is one of the earliest masters of the oil technique, which gave way to the use of light and color as a means of expression. Form is now defined by color rather than line. In Madonna and Small Trees, his use of light and shades shows a flawless precision. In Pieta the dead Christ is propped up by two angels, head bowed and hands pierced. Because Bellini believed that identifying with Christ’s pain can ease our own, the passion is a constant theme of his.
Leonardo da Vinci
Da Vinci was a pioneer of formidable talent who along with art, made contributions in architecture, science, engineering and design. He developed new techniques in painting such as fsumato, which is a method of blending colors so subtly that there is no visible transition, giving the appearance of eliminating lines and borders. This new technique is evident in The Virgin of the Rock in which the baby Jesus and his cousin, the baby John the Baptist, are portrayed with Mary and an angel in a natural grotto. John pays homage to Jesus who blesses him. Leonardo’s Last Supper portrays the reaction of his Apostles at his announcement that one would betray him.
After seeing just one drawing, the pope knew Raphael was a great artist and thereafter kept him busy painting frescoes in the Vatican along with a group of elite artists gathered from all over Italy. He was soon made responsible for the entire room known as the Stanza della Segnatura in which he painted his masterpieces, The School of Athens, Disputation of the Holy Sacrament and Parnasus and Virtues. In the final years of his short life, Raphael painted The Transfiguration, which is a dramatically-composed panel depicting the moment in which Jesus, Peter, John, and James went up to a mountain to pray. St. Luke records that Jesus’ countenance was altered and his raiment was white and glistening.
Michelangelo created the biblical scenes that adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which is the absolute pinnacle of monumental works of art. It was Michelangelo who was charged with painting the 40-meter-long ceiling with scenes stemming from the creation to Moses, which he does with nine scenes and 300 figures. For four years he climbed the scaffold and he designed and unleashed his brushes, arriving at an icon of Western art. Twenty-five years after he completed the work, he was in the Sistine Chapel again painting the western wall which was to depict the Last Judgment. The Bible records that Christ’s first coming displays his love and kindness; in the second He will show his power, strength and justice; damnation awaits those to those who have rejected His merciful plan of salvation.
The Baroque style took the representationalism of the Renaissance to new levels by emphasizing movement, light, detail, and drama. The style which made its way into the Protestant countries is characterized by the selective illumination of figures out of deep shadows.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
He made a vast departure from the classical world of perfect humanity and took his paintings into the real world, changing the course of art for all time. By 1600, he made his technique of using the contrasting effects of dark shadows and intense light a phenomenon throughout Italy. Caravaggio used this revolutionary style to focus our attention on the principle actors in his paintings, ignoring backgrounds altogether. In his dramatic altarpiece, Entombment, the artist captures an intense realism that many at the time found shocking. In this masterpiece he who said “come to me and I will give you eternal life” is being laid to rest in a dark tomb. In The Taking of Christ, Caravaggio captures this monumental moment of Christ’s ultimate betrayal by casting light over the faces of the figures. While John screams in terror, Judas reaches over to kiss Jesus who looks away in despair, conscious of the suffering He is about to bear. The soldiers close in on Jesus, who Judas identified earlier as “the one I shall kiss is the man; seize him.”
Peter Paul Rubens
Was indeed a prolific artist as his work spans many topics and genres. Among his masterpieces is the three-panel altarpiece The Descent from the Cross, which he painted for the Antwerp Cathedral. In this composition, you see the panorama of his style which incorporates the drama and emotion of the Baroque with his unique energetic rhythm, fluid movements, and naturalistic light—a style never again to be matched. Here Christ is lowered from the cross, the instrument of his suffering. John, Mary and others wrap the naked Christ in linen, while blood still flows from his hands, feet, and side. Christ Crucified between two Wrongdoers is one of the most dramatic depictions of the passion ever.
Rembrandt van Rijn
His vast Biblical paintings cover an array of subjects demonstrating his deep knowledge of the scriptures. Belshazzar’s Feast records the horrific moment when a hand appears before the king of Babylon and records his terrifying fate. “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Fascinated with texture, Rembrandt’s style is loaded with heavy colors and extremely thick paint. After the death of his wife and three children, his paintings began to focus on the emotional and spiritual aspect of the human condition. Return of the Prodigal Son who squandered his fortune in sinful living is cast in a state of profound remorse, yet in glorious redemption. As he approaches his father’s house, unsure of what punishment awaits him, his father sees him and runs to embrace the apple of his eye. No lecture, no reprimand and no punishment, just open arms. A staunch reminder that God’s grace and mercy will always exceed our own.
The 18th century was raising new ideas about human existence and the potential of mankind. The Rococo style is a visual representation of the optimism people felt during those years leading up to the French Revolution. It was the art of the aristocracy; less formal, it emphasized their indulgent lifestyle with scenes from comedies, operas and court life. Gone was the reflection and emotional depth of the Baroque paintings which stressed heroism, piety and morality. Rococo is light in color, effect and emotion yet dynamic in composition and atmospheric effect. By the late 1800’s Protestantism, which was ambivalent towards the fine arts, had a large share of converts, while the Catholic Church, formerly a huge art patron, was struggling with the effects of the reformation and the ever-increasing secular movement. The arts were now squarely in the hands of that secular establishment.
The Romantic movement of the early 19th century was a European development which influenced both the arts and philosophy. While their accomplishments were often genius, subjectivity began to creep its way into the artistic establishment.
The term Modernism is applied retrospectively to a host of trends that emerged in the middle of the 19th century. Impressionism materialized in France, a style that took a great interest in the visual experience and the effect of light and movement on the appearance of the objects the artist painted. A new technique by Georges-Pierre Seurat skillfully put touches of pure color side by side and then let the brain automatically mix them. While impressionists often accomplished works of incredible mystical beauty and had its share of grand masters, the technical sophistication and precision that was the hallmark of Western art was slipping away.
Surrealism was making headway as an international style, but it wasn’t until 1924 when French poet Andre Breton published Manifesto Surrealism that it came into being as a serious movement. In his book, he suggests that rational thought was antithetical to the powers of creativity and imagination and thus unfavorable to artistic expression. It was the subconscious that could produce artistic truths. And thus one of the most bizarre epics in art history was born.
Cubism and Minimalism
Cubism and Minimalism are two other 20th-century movements which found beauty in reducing objects to their simplest form. In so doing, they also minimized the need for the artist altogether, and with it the awe a well composed work of talent and skill used to inspire. Abstract Expressionism is another contemporary movement. It doesn’t just throw out old rules for new ones; rather they let the paint make the rules. Jackson Pollock was an icon of the movement. Of his drip painting he claimed, “Painting has life of its own which I let come through.” He and William de Kooning were pioneers of “action art,” as they became a physical part of the painting, often using cigarettes and buttons to lay down layers of paint. In so doing, they make it hard to distinguish their work from the cave paintings of the Stone Age.
Conclusion: Believers can say with confidence that the greatest innovations and works of art happened under the Biblical worldview. They can also make the claim that art has deteriorated at the hands of the secularists.
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