"The traditional purpose of art has always been to reveal the glory and goodness of God, his creation and his heavenly kingdom."
Art is a Medium of Revelation.
God is the source of all that is beautiful. Art is the language of Beauty. Art, architecture and music, therefore, are absolutely ways for God to speak to the world.
According to Pope Saint John Paul II, the person who has a unique vocation to Beauty is the person blessed with artistic talent. His (or her) talent has been given to him to explore this vocation. The work of the artist reflects the splendor of God, brings hope and joy to His people, and lifts hearts and minds to His divine beauty. Through artistic ability, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, the artist is called upon to unite the primal beauty of creation with the divine beauty of God. Like everyone else, the ultimate destiny of the artist is to forever sing the praises of God. The traditional purpose of art has always been to reveal the glory and goodness of God, his creation and his heavenly kingdom.
Theologian Alice von Hildebrand saw the connection between artists and Beauty when she wrote;
“the artist’s aim should be to create beauty. If he fails to do so, he is a bad artist. A writer whose novels are boring and clumsy is a bad writer. And a philosopher whose aim is “originality” and who cares not whether his claims are justified by agreeing with reality is a bad philosopher.” -Alice von Hildebrand
Art is not neutral.
In every work of art, something is being asserted about God and the world he has made, and that something measures up, in varying degrees to what God Himself has revealed to us. This applies to all forms of art. The poetry and music of the early church is found in the hymns of the liturgy. Like all of the arts employed by the early Christians, poetry and music were not conceived of as devices in their own right but as things to be used as a means of direct worship. Many of the early hymns were not even wholly original creations but commentaries on scripture, particularly in the east. The hymns of Ambrose and others can be seen as testimonies against Arianism and in favor of Orthodoxy, and music was used strictly in the employment of religion. We find as well that nearly all of the composers of these hymns were clergymen and many of them eminent theologians.
The Middle Ages
There is a popular misconception that from the fall of Rome to the beginning of the Renaissance, roughly the 900 year span we refer to as the middle Ages, human society began to slip backward. All the great advances in technology and culture were lost with the barbarian overthrow of the Roman Empire. No great advances were made and mankind struggled just to hold on.
But research undertaken in the last 20 years or so paints a different picture of the Medieval period. This was not only the time of great philosophers and theologians such as Francis of Assisi, Dominic, Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, but also the period of the staggering achievement of Gothic cathedrals.
In the thirteenth century artists began to interpret the Old Testament in a broader sense,
to them it seemed a vast figure of the New. Following the doctors of the church
they took a number of scenes from the Old Testament and juxtaposed them with scenes from the Gospel. This impressed upon the viewer a deep underlying sense of harmony. They showed a mystery. This was entirely Orthodox but the Council of Trent (1545-1563)
favored a more literal interpretation of the Old Testament and while not discarding the symbolic interpretation entirely, it was pushed to the background.
And so today, the average viewer knows next to nothing about the symbolic exegesis of scripture of which the church doctors made constant if not exclusive use. The vast legacy of symbolism, inherited from the early Christian centuries was received by the artist of the middle ages with deep respect. But what was plain and simple to the medieval peasant has become confusing and undecipherable to the common man today.
Parable of the Good Samaritan
A good example is the Good Samaritan window at Sens Cathedral in the region of Burgundy in France. The three lozenge shaped panels in the middle give the Gospel story while the circular medallions grouped around each of these central scenes interpret them and give their symbolic meaning.
Before the Law
The first lozenge shows the traveler being robbed. The represents man before the Law and his transgression which resulted in a loss of grace. Around the central lozenge is seen the creation of man and woman in the Garden of Eden, the temptation by the serpent, their sin, and expulsion from the garden.
Under the Law
In the second lozenge the wounded man is lying between the unconcerned Levite and priest. This is the age of the Law of Moses. This is a time of testing and trials as man begins to accept the Law. The medallions around the central lozenge show the brazen serpent, Moses and Aaron talking to Pharaoh, The golden calf, and Moses receiving the law.
And finally the third lozenge shows the Good Samaritan taking the wounded man to the inn. In this third age of man we are saved by Grace. Jesus come to restore to us the grace we lost in the first age. Around the central panel we see the trial of Jesus, the scourging at the pillar, the crucifixion, and the resurrection.
Did you ever consider that the parable of the Good Samaritan covered the three ages of salvation history? The Medieval peasant did. There could hardly be a clearer expression to a scheme of abstract ideas. The meaning of the parable is understood at a glance.
Before the Council of Tent, this was typical of the art that we placed in our churches.
Art for Art's Sake?
In the early church we never find the idea of “art for art’s sake.” This interpretation of art developed in the nineteenth century. By this phrase we mean an art that is capable of standing on its’ own, completely divorced from its’ religious context or any sense of service to the community. It is a relatively new concept. In fact Pablo Picasso went so far as to refer to it as a hoax. Rather, the early church maintained the idea that art is essentially a religious expression, a means of worship.
All art is religious in the sense that all art says something about the world from a certain point of view. The art, architecture and music in our churches says something about our theology. When we look at the art in our churches today, what message are we sending?
this article originally appeared at www.DeaconLawrence.org
Pontifex University is an online university offering a Master’s Degree in Sacred Arts. For more information visit the website at www.pontifex.university
Lawrence Klimecki, MSA, is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog at www.DeaconLawrence.org