Thursday, February 27, 2014

We used to think like this. . .

From the last of John Paul II's encyclicals (Ecclesia de Eucharistia):

Like the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany, the Church has feared no “extravagance,” devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist. No less than the first disciples charged with preparing the “large upper room,” she has felt the need, down the centuries and in her encounters with different cultures, to celebrate the Eucharist in a setting worthy of so great a mystery. . .

Lutherans and Lutheran Churches were once friends of art, of beauty, and of craftsmanship.  I fear we have surrendered these causes on the altar of expediency.  It is not in the budget.  It could better be used for more worthy causes.  It is not conscionable in a world of poverty and need.  It is too lavish or extravagant.  It is better to be simple, plain.  You name it.  I have heard it all.  Often from the same people who live in very nice homes and who enjoy traveling to the places where good art, architecture, and beauty can be found.

I just came upon a wonderful 1 million pixel version of the Ghent altarpiece.  Click here and you can see it in remarkable clarity -- compliments of the Getty Foundation. The Ghent Altarpiece (also called the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb or The Lamb of God is a very large and complex early 15th century Early Flemish polyptych panel painting. It comprises an altarpiece of 12 panels, eight of which are hinged shutters.

Lutherans also adorned altars with great altar pieces.   The use of images was one of the issues where Luther strongly opposed the more radical Andreas Karlstadt. For a few years Lutheran altarpieces like the Last Supper by the younger Cranach were produced in Germany, especially by Luther's friend Lucas Cranach, some to replace Roman Catholic ones and others for new construction.  These often contained portraits of leading reformers with the apostles, prophets, and saints of old while retaining the traditional depictions of Jesus upon the cross.  These were followed by the creations of Durer and Grunewald.  Often the Lord's Supper was the focus of these works with the crucifixion.

It is not surprising that the great affection for art began to decline when liturgical practice declined, when the piety of Lutherans began to be expressed in a more individualistic way, and when the high view of the Sacrament of the Altar that had characterized Lutheranism before was forced to compete with an inwardly focused spirituality (especially from the later Pietistic movement).

Fairly elaborate natural and painted wooden high altars remained the one area of extravagance long after the walls of Lutheran churches were plain and bare.  Where I grew up one of those oak altars with its elaborate carving of the Last Supper and the Lamb of God as well as the Thorvaldsen Risen Christ and a crucifix remain the one area of artistic indulgence in an otherwise very plain building.  The old Estey pipe organ is perhaps the other area in which the congregation bowed to tradition and to quality, even though the cost is great.

My point is this.  We were not iconoclasts but we have become so with our aversion to art, our refusal to expend the effort and funds for that which befits the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ, and our contentment with bland, dull, and inexpensive buildings. 

We have come to fear extravagance as much as we fear the zealous who shake up our complacency by taking seriously the things that we have merely confessed as words.  It is time to recover our Lutheran liturgical identity and the Lutheran connection to art and beauty in service to the Gospel.  It is even more important today.  We are are closing and abandoning some of the great structures of old.  Some because the folks in the pews have long since moved away and we have not raised up communities of faith to utilize the grand structures erected by their ancestors in the faith.  In others we have convinced ourselves we have outgrown the space or outgrown the style and need a warehouse atmosphere in order to compete with the evangelicals down the road.  Mission and liturgy are not enemies and neither is good art and enemy of outreach and witness.  Art, beauty, craftsmanship, and excellence are the support for liturgical excellence and assist in the inspiration to take the Gospel to those still living in darkness and the shadow of death.

Let us not give up on the value of good art and beauty in service to the Gospel both as teacher to those there and as witness to those not yet of the household of God. What John Paul II once expressed was also true of Lutherans.... and it should be still...


Anonymous said...

Having traveled to Wittenberg, Mora, Eisleben, Eisenacht, Wartberg, Worms, and Mainz, doing a Luther tour with fellow Lutherans I truly believe the we are loosing the tradition, fundamentalism, and respect that the church had with the beauty offered to GOD. These churches commanded respect when you entered. It also bothers me that we have cut the old testament readings from Sunday Service and I was told it is because people do not want to sit the extra 5 minutes it cuts into to their time, why do we not do the right thing not the convenient thing. May GOD have mercy on us.

Carl Vehse said...

My grandfather's church (and the
chancel) was dedicated in 1900 in rural Missouri.

Janis Williams said...

May I comment from the side of the artist?

I am in no way qualified, or talented enough to aspire to adorning the Church with what I create. However, I know artists who are able.

Not only are our churches failing to live up to the past as you say, but they are failing the artists. Those who are given the gift of being an artist/artisan are ignored. They are generally apart from the avant garde in the Art world. They are not (all) modern or contemporary artists (though I think the Church would do well to learn here, and come to understand). Yet they are basically thrown to the wolves of the secular to earn an income or supplement an income.

The time in which the Church supported the Arts (visual, musical, and written word) was also the time in which they supported the artists.

It somewhat bothers me that in order to "serve the Church" via visual arts, the artist must either move to a large metropolitan area (no guarantee), or learn to paint icons.

Those among the congregation who are not "well heeled" and may not be able to contribute monetarily are asked to serve in the nursery rather than adorning Christ's Church (in other words, the parish church building) artistically.

Anonymous said...

Here is a link to wikimedia commons where one can see over 800 beautiful historic Lutheran altars, almost all with a crucifix somewhere on the altar. If only our churches were still decorated like these.

Carl Vehse said...

Here are links to Google images and Bing's images of church Kanzelaltar, where the pulpit is above the altar.

Anonymous said...


I don't understand the last paragraph. Can you explain?