Theologically Significant

In modern European languages the word 'art' and its equivalents can be used to refer to an ability or skill, such as that shown by a potter; or to a process, such as the act of making pottery; or (most often) to a product, such as an earthenware communion cup. There are several things that together distinguish the work of art from other objects and products. Normally it is made or shaped by human beings; its making exhibits skill, know-how, or inspiration; it has a publicly recognizable (though possibly tenuous) connection with practices or institutions associated with the art world; and its appreciation depends to a large extent on aesthetic features—that is, features of sensory form and/or imaginative invention which we customarily identify as expressive, beautiful, or intrinsically interesting. No single configuration of these traits serves to identify all art; and avant-garde art, by definition, resists conforming to certain conventional ideas of art. Nevertheless, the features described above generally mark off what we think of as art and suggest where it fits into culture.

It should be noted, however, that the concept of art sketched here, being relatively modern, was not fully shared by many of the peoples whose products we now regard as remarkable artistic accomplishments. Nor was it shared by many of the finest theologians in history. Prior to the eighteenth century, Christian theologians and their peers rarely thought of 'art' generically or of 'the arts' collectively; they discussed this art or that, thought more about beauty than expression, claimed to prize non-sensuous, intellectual beauty above anything sensory, and often held in low esteem the actual making of art, this being the work of mere 'artisans'.

In any case, most modern students of the theological aesthetics would agree that nothing about the identifying traits of art guarantees a relation to theology. Some superb art is theologically uninteresting, just as some excellent theology is artistically inconsequential. What invites—or even requires-various kinds of theological dialogue is the fact that in actuality much that is associated with art reflects and affects matters of religion and faith.

From art's very inception the things we call artistic and aesthetic have played a major part in religious practice and experience. This is clear from the apparent ritual uses of the palaeolithic cave paintings and of the megaliths created thousands of years later. As for the place of the arts in Christian traditions, it is not insignificant that large portions of the Bible are comprised of poetry and of artistic narrative and that Jesus, with his parables and sayings, engaged in a kind of verbal artistry.

The Church from the start made extensive use of psalms, canticles and hymns, probably sung unaccompanied and often antiphonally. We now know that visual art played a part as well. Scholars have concluded, partly on the basis of artwork found in a synagogue and a church both excavated at a third-century site at Dura-Europos (in modern Syria), that neither Jews nor Christians consistently interpreted the second commandment of the Decalogue as prohibiting images of all kinds. As for the Christian art and architecture that began to pervade the Roman world following the Edict of Milan in 313, one can safely say that it was a major part of a revolution wherein Christianity became a new spiritual force as well as a very public and popular movement with political influence and social prestige.

Architecture became an especially important means by which Christians reinterpreted their identity in relation to the pagan world of classical antiquity. For their places of worship Christians widely adopted (and adapted) not the pagan temple but the Roman basilica—a rectangular civic building that when turned ninety degrees on its axis would not only accommodate many worshippers but would orient them towards a focal point, this being at the east end, the direction of prayer and the locus of the eucharistic altar table. Here Christians built an apse, inserting a triumphal arch at the termination of the interior hall and erecting immediately beyond it a semi-circular structure roofed by a half dome typically decorated with luminescent mosaics depicting Christ, either enthroned or ascending into heaven. When transepts were added, the cruciform shape further Christianized the whole design.

From the third to the sixth centuries, Christians developed a multifaceted visual christology, interpreting Christ not only as Ruler of the universe (and hence as the one true Emperor) but also as an alternative to any earthly emperor. In early Christian art, Christ is sometimes seen as an anti-emperor who triumphs in humility, entering Jerusalem on a donkey; or as a worker of magic and miracles; as the Good Shepherd; as the new Orpheus who restores life; as the new Asclepius with boundless powers of healing; as the infinitely wise philosopher conversing with his inquiring disciples; as androgyne in whom opposite sexes are reconciled and united; or as the unique human whose halo and golden garments identify him as nothing less than also truly God—possibly in refutation of Arianism. In all these instances, the art makes visible some significant feature of Christ that will at once dissociate him from merely pagan expectations while associating him with powers, functions, and realities that a pagan world could learn to recognize and worship. In this way the art functions to shape and vivify early Christian christology (see Miles 1985:41-62; Mathews 1993).

In subsequent centuries Christianity became one of the world's greatest

(and most ambivalent) patrons of the arts. The arts in turn not only illustrated its tenets but gave them imaginative life, nurturing and challenging faith in a fashion unavailable to doctrine alone—and sometimes in tension with official dogma. Such diverse art products as the sculptures of Chartres Cathedral, the epics of Dante and John Milton, and spiritual songs of African Americans all in their own way interpret the despair and hope of human experience while enlivening a sense of God's involvement with human history. The intellectually complex metaphysical poems of George Herbert's The Temple (1941) and the erotically tinged, fervent lyrics of the Spanish mystic St John of the Cross undeniably probe the mysteries of sin and salvation. Rembrandt's distinctively Protestant art gives at times a palpable expression to the need for reliance on grace alone. At the level of devotional art, countless crucifixes and painted altarpieces, whether or not conforming to the criteria of fine art, serve as objects before which, and because of which, prayer has continually transpired. In the sphere of secular culture art can still animate religious perceptions and ideas. Thus Mozart's treatment of the theme of human forgiveness in The Marriage of Figaro and other operas bestows on it an ineffable graciousness that hints at divine grace as well.

Various kinds of art have also helped define particular traditions within Christianity. Eastern Orthodox worship has been distinguished and enabled to a considerable degree by the veneration of icons, which are prominently displayed in processions and on the iconostasis separating the sanctuary from the nave of the church. By contrast, Protestantism has been known for its preaching, Bible reading, and vigorous congregational singing—coupled with a sharp reduction in, or elimination of, visual images and ceremony.

The examples given above indicate that art has often had a religious vocation. They also suggest that the religious vocation of art differs with the character and context of the artwork. Some art serves as prayer or praise; other art serves an overtly didactic purpose, informing the viewer about the Bible or the teachings of the Church. Some art serves primarily to beautify the place and moment of worship; other art motivates action in the world. Some art celebrates and plays with creation itself; other art agonizes and questions. There is sacred art, which is dedicated explicitly to church use; there is broadly religious art, which may be presented in a gallery or in the theatre or on a concert stage; and there is art that, despite its ostensibly secular character, nonetheless has religious or theological significance because of the depth of its soundings or because of the sense of transcendence that it generates. In addition there are arts that a given religious tradition prohibits. In the history of Christianity, forbidden arts have at one time or another included drama, dance, instrumental music, organ playing, harmonized singing, sculpture, and visual imagery per se. The exclusion of certain arts or styles, when it occurs, establishes perceptible boundaries for a tradition's identity.

Repeatedly throughout history theologians and Church leaders have attempted to set forth more-or-less universal guidelines for sacred art.

Favourite desiderata for such art include: simplicity, dignity, order, restraint, beauty, harmony, sincerity, truthfulness. Nevertheless, much sacred art has been created with other aims in mind, especially when commissioned for special religious occasions and uses. Donors, patrons, and artists themselves have frequently aimed at an art of splendour, glory, exuberance, magnitude, aweinspiring complexity, animated surfaces and rhythms. In point of fact, sacred art tends to bifurcate into an art of 'less' and an art of 'more'. This split is exemplified by the striking contrast one finds between the beautifully severe and ascetic Cistercian monastery churches of medieval France and the grander, more elaborate Benedictine pilgrimage churches. There is no less a contrast between a Rococo church in Bavaria, with its dizzying, lavishly ornamented interior surfaces, and an 'auditory church' in England designed by Christopher Wren a half-century earlier, featuring geometrical clarity.

This aesthetic divergence between the ways of 'less' and 'more' is intermittently accompanied by a theological explication and defence of one approach over the other. In a famous rebuke directed partly at the Benedictine monastery of Cluny and its dependencies, Bernard of Clairvaux in the year 1125 set a very high spiritual value on artistic austerity, although he acknowledged that where the church serves more worldly people its art may need to make a stronger appeal to the senses (Bernard 1990:10-12). At the opposite pole, Bernard's contemporary Abbot Suger of St Denis defended the spiritual merits of aesthetic brilliance and splendour—a mark of the Gothic style inaugurated by renovations to Suger's abbey church (Suger 1979:41-81).

Whatever theologians have supposed at one time or another, the opposition between aesthetic spareness and abundance, or between emptiness and plenitude, has not necessarily been equivalent to the opposition between spirituality and worldliness. The sonic exuberance of the Sanctus from Bach's Baroque Mass in B Minor is far from 'worldly', conveying instead a sense of the convergence of heaven and earth, both filled with divine glory. Conversely, the often plaintive or rough-hewn quality of the Appalachian tunes published in Southern Harmony in 1835 creates an impression that their Gospel message, far from being ethereal in its spirituality, is rooted in the soil of daily experience. It would therefore seem that, just as negative and positive theology both have legitimacy in Christian thought, so the art of privation and the art of superfluity can each aspire to religious authenticity.

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