Visual Art and the Values of Christianity [guest]

Jenna St. Hilaire is exactly two hundred and twenty-two years younger than Mozart (but what’s age when there’s love?) and a day shy of one hundred and sixty-five years younger than Pride and Prejudice. As the daughter of a master artist, she supposes her drawing prowess ought to trump her musical and literary skills, but it is sketchy at best (her love for puns is an unfortunate artistic weakness.) She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, who shares her love for beauty, and a cat, which thinks itself the source and summit thereof.

* * * * *

A very young Mormon once enthused to me about a Catholic cathedral she had toured. “It was beautiful,” she said, “so beautiful.”

“Some of them really are,” I said. “What about the Mormon temples? Do they have a lot of art on the inside, too?”

“No… we prefer to use our money for helping people.”

I let the jab go with a lift of the eyebrows; Mormon children may fairly be ignorant of Catholic art and Catholic charity. Her knowledge of her own church’s building investments (whatever their benevolence may be) was likely as off as her knowledge of mine, however, as a Google image search of “Mormon temple celestial room” suggests, though the images also hint in stage-whispers that the LDS vision of heaven has been way too influenced by American ideals of wealth rather than real artistry.

The Mormon aesthetic isn’t the only one suffering from American ideals. My evangelical years were spent in uniformly practical and unimaginative church buildings, even when said buildings were built by the churches themselves and were not just cast-off warehouses. More recently, watching the Catholic struggle between artistic past (old basilicas!) and thoughtless present (the 1970’s sucked… just saying) has significantly expanded and reinforced my understanding of art inside the Church.

Ceiling at Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, 13th century

Ceiling at Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, 13th century

I’m not much of a visual artist, myself. I’m a musician, capable of ranting at length about misuse of acoustical space, disuse of organ, and any use of songs containing lyrics cheesy enough to make a greeting card blush. I’m also a writer, and will proclaim the virtues of Brideshead Revisited or The Power and the Glory over the novels on Family Christian Stores shelves any day. But aesthetics matter in every form, and visual art and architecture merit the following discussion and more. For starters, they’re one of the primary contacts the outsider may have with the values of Christianity.

I’m aware, of course, that quality art is an expensive proposition. My parish, with its huge Gothic arches, stained glass windows, and all-over-the-tax-brackets congregation, doesn’t fix its roof leaks and maintain its old pipe organ easily. Church leaders and congregants alike are wise to be cautious about going into debt, even for the sake of beauty. But a few thoughts strike me as worthy of consideration.

St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Victoria, B.C., 19th century

St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Victoria, B.C., 19th century

1. Beauty is not superfluous.
Americans run pragmatic. We like convenience, control, and having money to use or give when need arises. Alongside sense and economy, though, there’s often extraordinary cheapness in regard to visual appeal. Practicality usually gets priority. Drywall and a decent paint job are all you need, right? Maybe a plain cross? (We needn’t discuss framed lighthouse posters with superimposed Bible verses…)

But the bare minimum is just that. The imagery in even the God-dictated portable tabernacle from Moses’ day is stunning in size and detail and overall splendor. It’s harder, nowadays, to imagine raising the funds for anything so fantastic—but the Israelites, apparently not sharing our absolutism regarding individual possessions, loaded the tabernacle artisans down with donations for the work. Value for communal art, when pervasive, can be very powerful.

Splendor doesn’t have to be the goal, of course. Simplicity can be intensely beautiful; it’s just a matter of line, texture, lighting, color—of artistic insight.

Somewhat simpler beauty: Derby, Iowa, 1903.

Somewhat simpler beauty: Derby, Iowa, 1903.

2. Art is a ministry.
What my Mormon friend had yet to realize was that art is one way of helping people. Beauty offers something to the world. John Eldredge recounts a conversation with a counselee:

“We sat in my office on a cold winter afternoon; outside all was gray. Perhaps that’s the reason I first noticed the flowers embroidered on the collar of her denim shirt. As she told me her tragic story, my eye kept coming back to those graceful little bouquets. Maybe I was surprised by them, but somehow I felt they were the clue to her restoration…. I couldn’t help mentioning the flowers. “Oh,” she said. “Ever since the rape, beauty has meant the world to me. No one seemed to understand why. Sometimes I would spend hours just gazing at my garden and the woods behind my house. Only beauty helps.”—from The Journey of Desire: Searching for the Life We’ve Always Dreamed Of

When I was working through depression, my bedroom-window view of hills in autumn color was my most immediate and dependable comfort. Mary’s face in its various renderings has since been healing for me—fair and contemplative in Bouguereau, dark and mysterious in the Eastern icon on our wall, vulnerable and sorrowful in Michelangelo’s Pietà, and queenly in stained glass at church.

Icon of Madonna and Child

Icon of Madonna and Child

The crucifix is especially powerful. Across the world and throughout Christian history, artists have sculpted, molded, mosaicked and painted the lines of torture and death into grace. That insight helps make meaning of our own pain. Chaim Potok, in My Name is Asher Lev, explained this when his protagonist—a Hasidic Jew—themed a painting of his own family around crucifixion:

“For all the pain you suffered, my mama. For all the torment of your past and future years, my mama. For all the anguish this picture of pain will cause you. For the unspeakable mystery that brings good fathers and sons into the world and lets a mother watch them tear at each other’s throats. For the Master of the Universe, whose suffering world I do not comprehend. For dreams of horror, for nights of waiting, for memories of death, for the love I have for you, for all the things I remember, and for all the things I should remember but have forgotten, for all these I created this painting….”

Crucifix, St. Hilaire household, 21st century

Crucifix, St. Hilaire household, 21st century

Beauty and art are the objects of a need that we ought to satisfy alongside the needs of food and clothing and shelter. Prosaic architectural principles and barren interior design may not be acts of disobedience on the level of neglecting the poor, but I do think they’re wasted opportunities.

Art can minister even to those who get nothing else from church. Atheists are sometimes moved to tears walking into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. “The history,” one woman said to me—“you know I don’t believe, but the history is so powerful.” The history, yes, and the beauty. Humans of every religion and of none are susceptible to forces they cannot explain in the presence of great art, even when they reject the belief system that inspired and created it.

Interior of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome

Interior of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome

3. The church’s art belongs to everyone.
No one asks permission or pays to walk into church, to kneel in a heavy wooden pew by red candlelight and read the stories in the stained glass.

Building, crucifix, crèche, statues and paintings belong not simply to church as entity, but to the church itself, meaning us—not to superintend like little tyrants (as church resource management is sometimes handled), but to care for, to be enriched by, in common humility with everyone around us right down to the homeless guy who wanders up from the mission. Its spiritual goods are available to every person who enters—and even to the people who drive past and find themselves suddenly awake to the line and color of brick Gothic steeple against heavy clouds and forested university hill.

Visual artists have something to offer the church that no one else can give. Many of them would gladly do work for free if it were welcome on a stretch of blank foyer wall—though commissions, it must be said, would be kinder.

Not every congregation can afford stained glass, and most Protestant churches would mount a hue and cry if someone brought in a statue of Jesus’ mama outside the Christmas season. But nobody protests the flannel-board Jesus in the children’s Sunday School room; why not display a watercolor Christ in the adults’? I’ve seen Psalm 42 illustrated on a basilica ceiling in mosaic; perhaps the same scene could hang in your chapel in encaustic, or be done up as a hallway mural in tempera?

The death of Absalom, Siena duomo floor, 13th century

The death of Absalom, Siena duomo floor, 13th century

The Christian churches of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were not always built under the most righteous of circumstances, but they were built with conviction, and they convey that. Bland commercialized construction and visual sterility also say something about what we believe—and since the Christian faith is neither practical nor unimaginative nor cheap nor bland, it seems worth considering what we profess versus what we express, and how to reconcile the two.

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5 thoughts on “Visual Art and the Values of Christianity [guest]

  1. I cannot tell you how much I love this article (partly because it’s so good for my soul to hear from old friends), how refreshing and insightful it is. Art is something I have always felt that Catholics understood far better than Protestants, and, if feelings can be trusted, I usually sense the closeness of God most aptly either in a Catholic cathedral or a wooded glen. There is true undeniable power and movement within beauty. I enjoy your poetic-with-a-twinge-of-comedic style of writing, and honestly I hope that TheoCult sees much more of you soon. Well done, my dear.

    • Thanks, Naomi! I’m rather fond of cathedrals and glens myself… and I remember having lovely conversations with you about art and beauty. Miss you. 🙂

  2. Our church is blessed with a good deal (at least comparably) of artists, both visually and musically. Over the past 5 or 6 years we’ve been journeying, both high and low, through developing a theology of Beauty. Beauty is probably the least understood of the transcendentals (much like the Holy Spirit in the Trinity), yet foundational to the heart and character of God.

    I’ve read quite a few books on the subject. One very Catholic one is Towards a Theology of Beauty by John Navone. It’s short, but dense and heady. Someday I will find a copy of Hans Urs von Balthasar masterpiece and read it… it’s been the most consistently footnoted reference in teh Beauty/Art books I’ve read.

    • Props to your church for contemplating the subject. So many don’t bother.

      And thanks for the book recommendations. I’ve not heard of the Navone book, but it sounds fantastic.

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