The Artist as Storyteller

"Storytellers remind us that we are part of a bigger picture by retelling the story over and over again, all in an effort to prepare mankind for the Kingdom that is to come."

Storyteller is perhaps one of the most obvious roles of the artist. But when it comes to painters it is also one of the most maligned.

As a people we seem to take endless delight into putting people into ever more specific categories. It is not enough to be an artist, that is, someone who is gifted with artistic ability, society must be able to define you as a fine artist, craft artist, illustrator and so on. And even those broad categories are further subdivided ad infinitum. This is a reflection of the vanity that is part of our human nature.

Art and Illustration

There is a story about Norman Rockwell in the early days of his career. He had submitted his work to a major gallery but was dismissed as being "just another illustrator." The attitude that illustration is somehow a lesser art always struck me as strange because some of the greatest masterpieces of art, those that are still admired centuries after their creation, are illustrations of the Christian story.

Almost everyone would agree that the Renaissance artist Michelangelo was a "fine artist." Yet his greatest masterpiece in painting, his murals of the sistine chapel, are illustrations of people and events of the bible. His "Last Judgment" illustrates the Christian doctrine of Heaven, hell and the disposition of our souls at the end of all things.

Was Michelangelo a "mere illustrator?"

What of Rembrandt's "Storm on the Sea of Galilee?" It is an illustration of Jesus calming the storm as recounted in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Or what of Raphael's "Transfiguration?"

There was a tine when these distinctions within the arts did not exist.

But over the last two hundred years or so, the perception of the purpose of art has changed. Art is now thought of as a vehicle for self-expression, a way to "find oneself." It is all about the ego of the artist and "illustration" is seen as somehow less inspired and therefore less "artistic." This attitude underscores the shift that has taken place in how art is viewed. Art no longer serves a community, it serves the artist.

But the ability to tell a story has always been one of the most powerful aspects of art. And we serve the community best by reminding them of the story that we are all a part of.

Indeed in genres other than painting, the arts revolve around storytelling.


The Christian Story

Stories serve us on many levels. They invite us to consider situations by drawing us in, making us part of the story, making us feel like we are experiencing the struggles and challenges of the protagonist first hand. They may teach us small lessons about life or they may invite us to consider ourselves as part of the bigger picture of the story of our salvation.

The Christian story is the story of humanity's journey through life to the goal of once more being united with God. The journey is marked by love that leads to suffering and sacrifice (the cross) but ends with a glorious victory (the resurrection). It is a story of  trust, betrayal, redemption and self sacrificing love, all set in a mystical world of wonders and miracles. It is the role of the artist as storyteller to take this ancient story, redress it and reframe it in a way that appeals to the audience of each age in which it is told, and connect that audience to the story that runs through our very being.

Storytellers remind us that we are part of a bigger picture by retelling the story over and over again, all in an effort to prepare mankind for the Kingdom that is to come.

Whether it is a story of knights, evil wizards, and princess devouring dragons, or a story about intergalactic farm boys, evil empires and princess devouring cyborgs, it is all the same story. It is the genius of the artist to retell this story i ever new and insightful ways.

This is why Jesus framed so many of his lesson as stories, parables. People may forget he words of a lesson, but they will remember the story.

The Power of Story

Stories spark our imagination. We live in a world of the visible and the invisible. The artistic telling of a story can help to connect us to the invisible world. Through stories we are made aware of the sacred that invisibly touches every aspect of the world we see. It is the story, told in pictures, words, film, etc., that allows us to see that everyday objects, persons and events are revelations of divine grace.

When it is told well we respond because we know the story by heart. That is to say, the story is written in our hearts and when we recognize it, our hearts leap for joy.

Whether it is a book, a movie, a play, a song, or a painting, artists who are storytellers have  an amazing ability to impact our lives. And in spite of trends that try to get us to sympathize with the villain, or make the hero a villainous "anti-hero," the stories that touch us most deeply are the ones that end exactly as we expect them to; the hero, a true hero, wins in the end after many trials and struggles.

The vocation of the artist is to create Beauty. When an artist tells a story by uniting Beauty with her sisters, Truth and Goodness, the result has the potential to change the world.

this article originally appeared at


Pontifex University is an online university offering a Master’s Degree in Sacred Arts. For more information visit the website at

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