Images of Faith

Growing up in a properly iconoclastic Baptist-type Protestant church, I was raised to be more than a little sceptical about religious imagery. Statuary and stained glass and painted angels on the ceiling and the like were not something we did; it was associated with Catholicism and the (apparently) dead-from-the-neck-up Church of England, and perceived as borderline idolatrous.

The typical Protestant Jesus was almost as bad. A long-haired neo-hippie with the features of a bearded girl and a Buddha-like detached serenity clinging to Him like a second skin, that image of Christ just seemed sappy and weak, not to mention as out of touch with contemporary culture as dressing like a 1950s Teddy Boy in the mid-’80s.

Our churches were by comparison stark, austere and plain, and we made a virtue of it. Not for us any Papist trappings; we preserved the simplicity of the Apostles’ faith.

However, one perhaps unintended consequence of this visual austerity was an unbiblical mental disconnect between art and worship. This was particularly odd for me as an artist, and I think this might be the reason that I struggled for so long with what my artistic talents were for. Drawing was a skill that came naturally to me, and typically produced reactions from my peers amounting to “Geoff, you’re really good at art”. But what use was it? What was the point of it from a Kingdom perspective? With no place in my personal theological framework for spiritual art, it was apparently only good for making people say “Geoff, you’re really good at art”.

Showing off, in other words.

It’s all very far removed from historic Christianity, which for centuries was the place for the arts, which were perceived as an act of worship on the part of the artist and an aid to worship on the part of the congregation.

With most of your congregation illiterate, the stained glass windows and painted ceilings functioned as a visual Bible and sermon both. A window of St. Anselm (picking a name at random) was Christian biography made visible; a frieze of angels was a visual representation of the heavenly worship around the Throne.

And in today’s visually-oriented culture, is a plain church really as God-honouring as we were brought up to believe?

It may well be that visual art is far more legitimate an expression of worship than I had been led to believe as a child. By my late teens and twenties, wall-hanging banners and waved flags had begun to make an appearance, and the strict iconoclasm of my youth began slowly to fray at the edges.

Perhaps the death-knell of my personal iconoclasm was sounded by my ministering in a Muslim part of the former Soviet Union.

Communist art was carefully proscribed in both content and style. The New Soviet Realism produced a recogniseably Communist iconography, with its muscular, grim-faced workers and women. It was the gulag for any artist who dared to stray outside of the approved bounds, and religious themes were of course particularly frowned upon.

Then there’s Islam, which is even more iconoclastic than Protestant Christianity. Making a visual representation of the sacred or the Divine is the ultimate sin of shirk, or idolatry. You can’t even draw a picture of a mere human without it becoming potentially idolatrous; Islamic art draws heavily on beautiful calligraphy and geometric patterns.

So what’s an artist to do in such a visually-constrained milieu?

Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I myself have a certain bloody-minded streak. The surest way to get me to swing in a particular direction is to expose me to an extreme version of the opposite viewpoint. That’s right: the more conservative Texas gets, the more I want to swing to the Left in self-defence.

Exposed to all the soul-destroyingly drab Soviet architecture and the anti-visual Islamic mindset, I began to swing the other way.

Visiting St. Paul’s Cathedral in London with my wife after we married was a breath of fresh air.

Just walking around without hearing anything at all is a sermon in itself. Before your eyes the Christ is Incarnated, Crucified, Buried, Raised and Ascended. There are the four Gospel-writers, St. Paul and the other Apostles who transmitted the faith we walk in. St. Paul’s is to this day my go-to source of inspiration for painting angels; the angels on the ceilings are not just white-winged or golden-winged, but blue and purple and red and green and orange: flames of fire, winds and mighty waters.

This of course brings up the question of whether angels have wings at all. Scripture never describes them as winged, though the Seraphim mentioned in Isaiah 6 have six wings, and the strange heavenly beings known as Cherubim and described in the book of Ezekiel have four wings. The Renaissance convention of depicting “cherubs” as baby angels is one of the most unfortunate artistic conventions of that period. Cute and pudgy the Cherubim are not.

By analogy, though, it’s sort of reasonable to suppose that angels, being the other type of heavenly being, might have wings, and it’s been an artistic convention to depict them that way since Christian art was a thing in existence.

Even as anti-idolatry as the Old Testament is, there’s a surprising amount of intersection between art and spiritual life. The priestly robes have certain prescribed colours. Everyone has to wear a robe with ornamental tassels containing a blue thread. The tabernacle is decorated with pomegranates, the ceremonial washing basin known as the Sea is carried on the backs of sixteen bronze bulls, and the Ark of the Covenant has carved and gilded cherubim on its lid. More, the artist commissioned to create these furnishings was filled with the Holy Spirit specifically for the task. And this in an age where the Spirit was more or less restricted to kings, priests and prophets.

Bezalel was no king, and barred from the priesthood by being from the wrong tribe. I guess this is where prophetic art comes in.

As a side note, I’d love to know the Hebrew symbolism of the pomegranate; it’s always seemed an odd decoration for God’s tent.

More than that, the bronze snake on a pole, created in [ref], was, from a certain point of view, an art object dedicated to God and used as a means of grace for healing. Admittedly, by the time of King Hezekiah it had become a focus of worship in and of itself and had to be destroyed as an idol, but in its original purpose it was religious art par excellence.

You do of course need to take care with visual art that this sort of fall towards apotheosis does not take place. Visual media have a powerful drawing capacity, and if our hearts are not careful to keep our focus on the Lord who is so far beyond any human art, then we run headlong into idolatry. But it’s not like we don’t run the same risk with our music. We can, if we’re not careful, start to idolise our musicians and focus on the emotional high of a particular song or musical style or of listening to skilled players. Idolatry resides in the heart, not outside of it.

By my reading of the Bible, God seems more comfortable with a certain amount of decoration and representative visual art than we sometimes are.

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2 thoughts on “Images of Faith

  1. Christianity, Islam and Judaism all have a range of views on artistic representations, not just the hardline iconoclastic one. The Danish cartoon controversy came about because a Muslim found it difficult to find illustrators for a children’s book he had written about Muhammed. He encouraged artists to submit cartoons of the Prophet. Many refused to represent him, some showed a shadow, others pictured a man in a style meant for a children’s book and one showed him with a bomb in his turban…
    If you ever go to Florence you should visit the Convent of San Marco. Fra Angelico expresses his deep love of God in the frescoes he painted on the walls of the cells of his friends, the fellow monks.
    At university, as my faith grew, I realised I could no longer be a member of the Christian Union because I could not go along with their idolatry any more. I tore up the membership card which declared that “the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour is Holy Scripture as originally given”. I believed and believe that the God who speaks through Scripture is supreme and will accept no substitutes for Him.

    • I love Fra Angelico’s work, but I’ve never been to Florence yet.
      I agree that there’s a diversity of view on imagery in each of the Abrahamic religions; “properly iconoclastic” was meant as a description of what I thought ought to be the Right Way when I was a child.
      I can see your point about not making even Scripture into an idol, but personally I find that has to be balanced with the knowledge that it is primarily through Scripture that God makes Himself known. Many people have all sorts of ideas about God and many claim to hear His voice, but as Christians, the way we test and prove these ideas and revelations is by the test of how well they line up with the specific revelation of Scripture. I think that’s what “supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour” is supposed to mean.

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