We can’t understand where we are going until we understand where we have been. In this article I am going to attempt to give a short history of the dance between the arts and Christianity (with pictures). If you are a serious student of Church history or art history, forgive me.
In Exodus God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, and forbade the construction of “graven images.” For many Protestants, especially those from the Reformed tradition, this is the beginning and end of the discussion. In actuality, the story is more complex. Moses was also instructed to ordain an artist and his assistant to create a whole series of visual images to decorate the Tabernacle–cherubim, angels, doves, trees, and fruit. Moses was also later directed to create a “brazen serpent” that was used to miraculously heal those who suffered from snake bite. The tension becomes more clear when Hezekiah destroys the serpent hundreds of years later because it was being venerated as an idol. And to further complicate things, Jesus would identify himself with the serpent in John chapter 3.
In the Jewish DNA of Christianity, the tension between the making of idols and the creation of icons will continue. We know that in the first century the Jewish community was using the arts in the Roman world to decorate their synagogues–frescoes, mosaics, and carvings. At the same time, the Roman Empire was an empire that worshiped many gods, worshiped statues, and worshiped its emperors. Christianity had to question about how to relate to this world where art and pagan worship were married.
We have no evidence of a distinct Christian art until the early third century. We know that Christians did adopt many symbols common in both Judaism and paganism and reinterpreted them. We know for example that doves, fish, pelicans, peacocks, and images of shepherds were all used to communicate a Christian “secret code.” In all practicality, art did not thrive because art requires a permanent location and some disposable income. It would take about 200 years for the church to have both.
This happened in the about 225. We know because the oldest church building that has been located is decorated with frescoes. These depict biblical scenes, and seem to owe a debt to the style of painting in Synagogues of the same time period. This church, called Dura-Europa has scenes of the women at the Empty Tomb, Jesus walking on the water, and scenes of various events from the gospels. It is clear that in some ways these pictures are early examples of a common theme throughout Christian art: Pictures become essential tools for telling the Bible stories to illiterate people. From the beginning, art is about story.
Of course, things change a bit when Rome adopts Christianity. Both money and property flow into the church, and along with this we begin to see a serious Christian artistic language develop. Pictures not only tell the story, but they begin to become the focus of devotion. The subject matter is first focused on images of Jesus and Mary. Soon images of important saints join the ranks of icons. These images fill the interior of churches and also get put on wooden panels for personal and portable devotion.
It is about this time that the cross first appears as a motif in Christian art. Before the late Roman period crucifixion was still practiced. Because crosses were a real part of life, and because Christians were a persecuted minority the cross was avoided. Once Rome abolished crucifixion and adopted Christianity, the cross begins to emerge as a motif, and eventually the symbol of the entire faith.
After the fall of Rome and the beginning of the European dark ages, art begins to play an even greater role as a communication tool. In places where few can read, and fewer understand Latin, the images decorating churches and manuscripts become essential.
After Rome falls we have another interesting development. Pope Gregory the great begins to codify and organize music for the first time. This system of written music is our only link to the pre-musical past and also the foundation of all Western music that would emerge over the next 1000 years.
Although the Western Roman empire collapsed, in the east Rome continued on in the form of the Byzantine Empire. Art continued to grow in importance. Icons and images began to increase in their importance in the church. By this time we begin to see stories of miracles attributed to icons, and hear of icons with mysterious or miraculous origins.
All this suddenly ceases in the late 700’s when Islam emerges. The Quran strictly forbids all imagery. A series of calamities in the Byzantine empire forces the emperor and many in his court to forbid icons. For about a hundred years the Iconoclast controversy would rage until a church council, the Seventh Ecumenical Council of Ephesus finally agreed that images of Jesus and the saints were appropriate. The council decided that because Jesus took on flesh, and because Paul described Jesus as the “icon” of the invisible God, we too could make and look on these images. The icon would be referred to as the “window into heaven.” The Eastern church would have an unbroken tradition of icons and iconography until the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1492.
Meanwhile, back in Europe, missionaries were gradually converting the various barbarian peoples. Compared to Rome, these were the dark ages, and the art from this period is crude compared to the Byzantine. Because art played such an important role in the missionary work, the Pope felt no sympathy for the Iconoclasts. Art took on a completely different form of devotion, the construction and decoration of the gothic cathedrals on a massive scale. At the same time, art became a deeply personal thing in the decoration and illumination of the medieval manuscripts. Because these paintings were protected in the pages of books, they have been preserved and give us windows into another age.
After a few centuries European society began to flower again. By the 1300’s the first signs of the Renaissance were happening in Italy. Over the next 200 years an amazing rebirth of painting, sculpture and learning would happen across western Europe. This rebirth would trigger the construction of churches and the advance of technology. It would also trigger a rebirth in music and theatre. The theatre of today grew out of the church, where plays and pageants were held to re-enact Biblical stories and tales from the lives of the saints. Once again, the arts began to take on an increasingly devotional flavor. Images, statues, and shrines became centers of worship and pilgrimage.
All this suddenly stopped at the Protestant Reformation. The reformers, citing the Ten Commandments incited mobs to destroy churches, monasteries and priceless works of art. Frescoes were whitewashed. Statues were hacked to pieces. Instrumental music was forbidden. For the next 500 years many streams of the protestant church would forbid or be suspicious of the arts.
By contrast, the Catholic Counter-Reformation would make art and the veneration of images an essential part of Roman Catholicism. Gianlorenzo Bernini would decorate the interior of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome in such a way that the worshiper would be overwhelmed with emotion–and hopefully devotion.
About 100 years ago several movements were set in motion that began to set the stage for a shift in the relationship between art and the church. The Pentecostal revival, beginning at Azusa Street, and spreading out as the Charismatic movements have brought freedom and renewal to the church across denominations. As this movement grew, it crossed into the Roman Catholic Church. Around the same time the Second Vatican Council took a hard look at many of the decisions made at the time of the Reformation. Today, all the reforms that Martin Luther sought at the time of the Reformation have been adopted by the Roman Catholic Church.
Film, print media, and eventually television suddenly challenged the iconoclastic tendency of the protestant world. Actually, the film The King of Kings, directed by Cecil B. Demille in 1927 probably made the biggest impact. The King of Kings was used around the world by missionaries to tell the story of Jesus. Like centuries before, images became the Bible of the illiterate. The rise of the media has done more to transform the arts in the church than any thing else in the past 500 years. This too, has had an impact on the larger Christian world.
So there you have it. We are now in a moment probably like that one 1500 years ago, when the artist has an opportunity to impact the church and the culture in an amazing way.
We are in an amazing moment, the moment a new renaissance where artists have the ability to tell stories in a new and powerful way.
For more on this subject, check out my book, An Army Arising: Why Artists are on the Frontline of the Next Move of God.