Saturday, June 16, 2018

Art not so useless. . .


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Art is like worship. In a practical, utilitarian world it seems rather useless and perhaps even foolish.  Art is just pretty stuff, the things we hang up in our homes to decorate the plain wall.  It has meaning only so long as we choose it to and it is something we discard when we are over it or when our interests or tastes change.  At least that is the estimation of the world.

But the art in the church is not just pretty stuff we put in the church to decorate.  Instead this art  connects with our faith.  Every icon, statue, carving, stained glass window or painting is a teacher and a voice that addresses us through our eyes in the same way words of the creed engage our mind.  We see the faith with those eyes and we are instructed in that faith just as words teach our minds.  But the goal here is not simply knowing for the sake of knowing but knowing so that we might believe and believing so that we might live the new life God has bestowed upon us in the living water that connects us to the death and resurrection of Christ.  Faith sees not simply a one dimensional figure but a message, a word, a voice that addresses us with the eternal Gospel and bids us to enter its mystery by faith.  Art is not sacrament but it might be said to be sacramental.  It leads us past ourselves and our likes or preferences and into God's gracious actions that reveal His grace and favor. The art around the Church not only instructs but directs the wayward and wandering mind back to what is happening within the liturgy.

There was a period in which we thought art competed with the message and distracted us from the faith.  So we extended our less is more idea onto the architectural forms of churches and they were left open and bare.  In the end this did little more than erase our memories and disconnect us from our past.  Even worse, they gave us the subtle encouragement to believe we were both subject and object of the Divine Service.  Finally, without forms and images to draw us back, our minds were untethered from visual anchors and we began to think only in terms of words.  Truth became propositions and faith became informed consent and the buildings lecture halls and theaters for performances. 

Luther was almost alone among the Reformers to suggest a place and purpose for the arts -- especially music.  But the others were suspicious of it all and restricted it all.   We are, in some respects, just beginning to recover our heritage of art and music from our history.  There are still some who complain about its cost and necessity -- not unlike the naysayers who whined about the cost of the ointment the woman used to anoint Jesus.  But what we have to offer the world is not beauty for the sake of beauty but beauty that befits the Word and serves its noble purpose of engaging us with the saving work of Christ.  Someday we may find that the world has proscribed our speech and placed limits on what we can do but we will always have the arts that hang in the great museums and the churches themselves that speak of Him who loved us even to death. 

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10 comments:

William Tighe said...


How awesome is that apse mosaic from Cefalu Cathedral, "humanity suffused by divinity" as one writer characterized it (not exactly theologically). I regret that my brief visit to Cefalu on July 16, 1974 has never been repeated.

Joanne said...

Ah, the apsidal image (icon) of the Pantocrator (Ruler of All) at the Norman cathedral at Cefalu. A favorite. The mosaicists show a strong influence from Constantinople. The more precise name of this icon is connected with the famous text that is cited, "I am the light of the world..." To phos, tou kosmou. He that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have...

I have read, that when an icon quotes a text (not all do) then the one praying through the holy image is expected to kiss the text. If you have no idea of any of this, this bowing and kissing before a painted panel looks for all the world (tout le monde) like the crassest form of iconodulia, worshiping a painted board. But people who use icons do not think that is what they are doing. They think they are praying to heaven and that the icon is a type of communication device.

In the catechisms, Luther has a well-developed coverage of "what it means to have a God," and what it is to have idols. If we start out with Luther on defining what these things are and mean, then we get a great deal of clarity in our Lutheran mind.

Anonymous said...

We are not one-dimensional beings and therefore our worship is not one dimensional. We worship with our entire bodies: sight, smell, hearing and touch. When we adorn our churches with beautiful art, that art should teach the truths of our Christian Faith.

The icons and statues and paintings direct us to God; they don't replace Him. Catholic and Orthodox Churches incorporate all of the senses since we are not just intellect/mind. I've been to some Lutheran churches that are adorned similarly. We should adorn our chuches and make them beautiful. The House of God should be beautiful and should be a refuge from the world and all of it's noise and busyness.

Dan

John J. Flanagan said...

I disagree with most Christians, including fellow Lutherans. Iconic art, especially drawings and paintings of the face of Our Lord, have no place in worship. They are not true depictions of Jesus and God the Father. They come from the fertile imagination of the artists. In my view, the commandment to make no image of God still holds.

Anonymous said...

John, seeing that you are a convert to Lutheranism from Catholicism, it's not hard to understand why you would say such a thing. Scripture does not prohibit sacred art. The Golden Ark of the Covenant with the Cherubim on top is an example. No, sacred art directs the believer to God. If you follow your reasoning to its logical conclusion, then we must get rid of all art and pictures of our loved ones since they depict things in the heavens and on earth.
Did you not know that icons are actually prayers and that they are "written" not painted. The writer of icons has to prepare in advance with fasting and prayer before he/she writes the icon.
And in discovered ancient churches of early Christianity, the floors and walls had Christian symbolism on them? No, we are body, mind, and soul and we worship with all of our senses. Sacred art is not probibited.

Dan

William Gleason said...

If I remember correctly, iconodulia is not "worship" of icons, but refers to the proper veneration of icon by which honor is given to the true personage behind the image. Worship of icons is called iconolatry and refers to the adoration of the object itself. This form of worship is pagan. The confusion of the two is what caused so much disagreement between the East and the West during the iconoclastic controversy. This aspect of the Church's sacred art (dulia) is too often ignored or condemned (at least within Protestantism, including the Lutheran church) because of the confusion between the two actions or the fear of abuses. The Seventh Ecumenical Council settled the matter.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Gleason,

Thank you!

Dan

William Tighe said...

What is the Lutheran stance (or, perhaps, stances) towards the Seventh Ecumenical Council - if, indeed, there ever has been any official "stance?" I wish I could find as clear a presentation on the matter, as this little booklet about the Anglican/Church of England and that same council:

http://anglicanhistory.org/cbmoss/seventh.pdf

Padre Dave Poedel said...

Is that not the mosaic in the apse of St Paul Outside the Wall in Rome? I recall seeing it and being mesmerized by it for nearly an hour.

doofus said...

No, that is in one of the Cathedrals on Cefalù Sicily