Art and Christianity

Art as Theology: Chapter Four

      1. Darkness Falls
      2. Iconoclasm
      3. Repentance and Discovery
      4. The Renaissance
      5. Protestant Ethic and Art

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“The world is a beautiful book, but of little use to him who cannot read it.” (Carlo Goldoni, ‘Pamela’, act 1, sc.14, 1746)

Darkness Falls

The Roman Empire fell into a steady decline shortly after the first Caesars took autocratic control. Any pretense of democracy soon evaporated. The self-confidence that marked the Greek and Roman world of an earlier time soon disappeared and was replaced with the fear of barbarian hoards and pirate politicians. The term “Dark Age” was originally a pejorative term indicating the diminishing of classical philosophy in the later Roman period, followed by a long period of intellectual and cultural decline. This contrasted against the “light” of Renaissance (a new birth, i.e. of classical) thought. The break with classic Greece and Rome cannot be denied. But the pejorative is quite unfair. Witness this from the Wikipedia article on the Renaissance: “The Renaissance has a long and complex historiography, and there has been much debate among historians as to the usefulness of Renaissance as a term and as a historical delineation. Some have called into question whether the Renaissance was a cultural ‘advance’ from the Middle Ages, instead seeing it as a period of pessimism and nostalgia for the classical age” (

This also exudes a Eurocentric view of the situation. Nestorian Christians of Syria, Iran and Iraq were expanding across Asia, placing bishoprics in China, Japan, India and all places in between. With conquest by Muslims their communities, which included thousands of cathedrals, churches, monasteries and holy sights, continued unabated until the time of the crusades. Nestorians copied and translated large numbers of Greek and Roman works which would have otherwise been lost to us. Nestorians provided the learning for the Islamic states, until reaction to the Crusades forced them out of government.

History since that time has comprised of several cycles of repression and eventual genocide against the vibrant communities of Nestorians, Jacobites, Jews and Manicaeans of the East (Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, 2008). Unfortunately, very little remains of Nestorian art as it was largely expunged. But to apply the term “dark” or the currently more favored “Middle Ages”, implying a state between more significant states, to the post-Roman period of these communities is miss that all the while the Western Empire was collapsing, an active commercial, intellectual and cultural life continued in the East. Their darkness was only just beginning at the time Europe's revival of Aristotle and classical humanism was beginning.

This applies no where more strongly than the Byzantine Empire, which remained stable from the time of its break with the Western Empire until the Turkish invasions of the eleventh century. The crusaders further damaged Byzantine strength in the thirteenth century. Although the Byzantine's thought of their art as naturalistic, it bears the heavy markings of Christian vision. The erect poses and large eyes had become characteristic of all Roman art prior to the East-West split, continued. There is a beautiful stylized flow of robes and drapery, as well as a serene calm which pervades both Byzantine and Roman art under Christianity. This calm is softer than the Egyptian pose. There is an energy in the pose, action in the drapery, yet the face remains smooth and unruffled. The sensuality and nudity of classical Greek and Roman art is gone. This is indicative of the Christian thought, which provides hope and power against the darkness and the forward motion of love. It is a selfless action, which death itself cannot disturb. The eyes are fixed beyond the moment and do not look to the beauty of the flesh.

The terms “Middle Ages” or “Dark Ages” has to be reserved for Western Europe. And, we have to remember that the implied diminishment of this era is in contrast to the humanistic opulence of the periods before and after. In this time the classical hubris of the natural beauty could not answer the fear and the uncertainty. The resurgence of lawlessness called into question any notion of natural beauty. Any idea of natural goodness seemed ridiculous in the face of barbaric cruelty. Plotinos (c.205-270) speaks of a rejection of classical notions, (Pollitt, 1966, pages 218-219). The large eyes and stiff formal poses were returning to statuary. The art of late antiquity marked a turning to God and a formal representation of the things of the spirit. Christianity became the religion of the Roman world, and spirit took precedence over the flesh once again, (Pollitt, 1966, pages 213-227). The idea that the artists and philosophers of this period had suddenly become incapable of sculpting a supple form or writing an opinion on Aristotle is absurd. It was a era set squarely against human vain-glory. The influence was Christianity itself, which encouraged at style that was “highly anti-organic, geometrical, and expressive” according to Irmgard Hutter, author of several books on the era. “The figures assumed an overriding symbolic function—they pointed beyond their physical existence to greater matters, into which the observer was directly drawn.” (Hutter, Early Christian and Byzantine Art. 1971. Pages 9-10).

The long and difficult period which followed the collapse of imperial Rome was a return to simplicity and spiritual matters. Christianity became the state religion, but more, is was the answer to fear, an explanation and way of rising above the affliction and loss. Great monasteries spread across Europe, from Jerusalem to Ireland and back again. Extravagant and monumental art was laid aside for nearly a thousand years. This was an age which deliberately shunned self-aggrandizement lest the destructive excesses of Rome return. However the monasteries housed rich learning and luminous works of art. To suggest that the swirling lines of drapery carefully styled and laid with gold about peacefully taut but powerfully radiant saints is deficient, is to dismiss some of the richest and most beautiful art the West has produced.

Unfortunately, the lack of strong government, and the continual waves of pillagers from Mongolia, and later, Muslim invasions from North Africa, caused a great deal of social instability. Despite monasteries with large libraries, most of the time and resources of Europe were devoted to daily necessity. The cultural output was low. Few books were published. Most effort went into making copies to preserve existing knowledge. In this sense the period could be legitimately referred to as “dark”. The one bright spot was the stability brought by the Carolingian rulers Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, a period covering the ninth century. This “Carolingian Renaissance” ( gave a brief space for scholarship and the arts to flourish.

The continued spread of Christianity throughout Europe gave the church of Rome an ability to broker peace in the midst of political and economic chaos. Christian monasteries were often the place of refuge when invaders appeared. This also meant that the spirituality of Rome and the culture attached to it had the greatest influence on Europe. By the eleventh century, trade routes were stabilizing and becoming safer. Cities were beginning to grow. A religious zeal began to break forth. Monumental art was being commissioned once again. But before looking at that, let's look at a peculiar religious controversy affecting Christians, Jews and Muslims.



One of the first great controversies of the Christian church was Iconoclasm. The question revolved around whether or not it is permissible to depict the human presence of the Holy. The debate, drawn from Judaism, raged for several centuries and spilled over into Islam. The concern was whether or not the depiction of the saints would debase their memory, or worse, cause us to turn from God to idolatry of the saints. Generally the depiction of Jesus or historical incidents from the gospels was permitted in Christianity. Islam does not permit the depiction of God, the face of Mohammed or the prophets. When depicted, Mohammed's face is obscured by a veil.

Within the Christian realm the issue was bogged down in argument over the two natures of Jesus, divine and human. The Gnostics saw Jesus as essentially divine, only temporarily in the flesh. As such, they disliked human representation of Jesus. Nestorians believed that Jesus had clearly human and clearly divine natures but that they were separate from each other. Nestor, himself, was particularly perturbed by the depiction of Mary as Theotokos, the bringer forth of God, as she, he reasoned, could only give birth to the human nature of Jesus. Nestorians, having been condemned by the Council of Chalcedon fled to the East, where they were welcomed. They continued to exert influence on the Eastern Empire.

The issue was never directly addressed within the Christian church until the pressure of Islamic neighbors fueled the controversy in Eastern (Byzantine) Empire. In 695, Justinian II placed Christ's image on the obverse of Roman coins. This led Caliph Abd al-Malik to reject Byzantine coins and mint the first Arab coins. Friction over this issue led to a war which the Byzantines lost. For this and other reason turbulence seized the Byzantine capitol, causing several changes of power. Leo, a Byzantine general, seized control of Constantinople in 717, becoming emperor Leo III. He is known for re-establishing order to the empire and to driving back the Islamic advances which had come as far as Constantinople. As emperor, he began an iconoclast, (image-breaking), campaign, probably under the influence of Nestorian iconoclasts.

The monasteries, which were important pilgrimage sites, resisted strongly. Similarly the Western Empire, most importantly the bishop of Rome objected. This led to outbreaks of rebellion which persisted until at the death of Constantine V, the son of Leo III, the icons were restored. Church synods addressed the issue more clearly, outlining what was considered the proper use of representational art, relics and similar objects. This did not prevent a second outbreak of iconoclasm in 814, brought on by Leo V and his successor and son Michael II.

While the weight of history favors the use of images and relics within Christianity, their abuse as objects of veneration has always remained a point of contention. Hoshea, reformer king of Israel, removed the brazen serpent that Moses made and used to heal the people of plague because the people had begun to worship it (2 Kings 18:4). The Christian world determined it was proper to depict Christ as a man, Islam chose not to allow the image of Mohammed to be reproduced without some sort of veil over his face.

The iconoclast controversy shows how deeply interwoven is representational art and the beliefs of the society which produces it. The dogmatists attempting to forcibly remove artwork, had lost the message it conveyed. For many, particularly those who could not read, nor had access to books, representational art was their doorway to the gospel.

On the other side of the coin, the veneration and pilgrimages to holy sites where various statues or paintings are believed to have special powers to heal, suggests that this was not a foolish debate. The debate simply skirted the real issue, turning implements of worship into occult objects. Shrines may involve natural objects such as the bones of saints, or locations of special visitations, as easily as they might involve an art work depicting someone or something of significance. This occult veneration involving pilgrimages is as pronounced in Islam than in those Christian groups who practice the same.


Repentance and Discovery

Europe in the eleventh century was a place of turmoil. For some, the time was one of expanding possibilities, increasing trade, knowledge of far off lands, increasing urbanization. For others, this was a time of great fear and uncertainty, as old ways of life ceased to provide. Increasing urbanization brought plagues. The result was a social turn-over full of hope and longing, as well self-doubt and introspection. Pilgrims trekked across Europe seeking shrines and Holy relics. The Popes called for crusades to free the Holy lands from Moslem control. Cathedrals, shrines and churches were being commissioned. This was an age of great religious zeal:

“Who ever saw, who ever heard, in all the generations past, that kings, princes, mighty men and women of noble birth, should bind bridles upon their proud and swollen necks and submit them to waggons which, after the fashion of brute beasts, they dragged with their loads of wine, corn, oil, lime, stones, beams, and other things, necessary to sustain life of to build churches, even to Christ's abode? Moreover, as they draw the waggons we may see this miracle that, although sometimes a thousand men and women, or even more, are bound in the traces (so vast indeed is it), yet they go forward in such silence that no voice, no murmur is heard; and, unless we saw it with our eyes, no man would dream that so great a multitude is there. When again, they pause on the way, then no other voice is heard but confession of guilt, with supplication and pure prayer to God that He may vouchsafe pardon for their sins; and while the priests there preach peace, hatred is soothed, discord is driven away, debts are forgiven, and unity is restored betwixt man and man.” (Gothic Art, 1971. Pages 25-26; from a letter of Haimon, Abbot of Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives, to the monks of Tutbury Abbey in England).

The Crusades brought the soldier-pilgrims in contact with Byzantine and Moslem art and architecture. The builders of the new churches and cathedrals being erected along the major pilgrim routes were naturally inspired by the stories of returning Crusaders. Suger, abbot of Saint-Denis, commissioned and personally directed the construction of the first completely Gothic structure relates: “I used to converse with travelers from Jerusalem and, to my great delight to learn from those to whom the treasures of Constantinople and the ornaments of the Hagia Sophia had been accessible, whether the things there could claim some value in comparison with those here.” (Gothic Art, 1971. Page 9).

The spiritual energy and the fresh style led to a transformation from the squat, solid figures of early Christian Europe to the tall, ethereal figures of high Gothic art. Gothic art is at once an expression of spiritual longing and the boast of flourishing civilization. this was a self-conscious age, concerned with itself in the eyes of God, and concerned with pleasing God, and concerned with becoming important in the eyes of the world.

English scholar Alexander Neckam (ca. 1157-1217) disliked the sense of hubris he saw in the new Gothic art: “The extent of human affectation is shown in part by the expenditures dedicated to pleasure which an empty boastful pride consumes and squanders in the superfluous magnificence of buildings. Towers are erected that threaten the stars, excelling the peaks of Parnassus. The summit of Nysa [one of the peaks of Parnassus in Thessaly] marvels that it cannot equal the heights achieved by human toil and skill; nature complains that she is surpassed by art… O vain affection!” (Gothic Art, 1971. Page 31). Like Babel before it the cathedral builders were attempting to build their way to heaven. As Neckam observes, there is too much of the builder in it. “And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. ” (Exodus 20:25, KJV).

Neckam's concern was not idol speculation, for the returning crusaders also brought word of Byzantine, Nestorian and Arabic scholarship. These groups had access to Classical Greek and Roman libraries. With the fall of Constantinople and mounting repression of Nestorian scholars within the Muslim courts, scholars carrying the works of Aristotle and others began to arrive in Italy. Expanding trade networks allowed Europe to prosper. The growing sense of self-importance caused a revived interest in the humanism of clasical Greece and Rome.


The Renaissance

Renaissance art revives the classic hubris of Greece and Rome. The barbarian invasions of Europe have been stopped. The Muslims have been forced to retreat from Spain and the European continent. Stable Christian kingdoms have been established throughout Europe. The insecurities of the proceeding centuries are replaced by exuberant growth. The new aggressive spirit challenges the known world and changes it brick by brick. Beginning with fifteenth century Italy, “widespread inquiry concerning the world now sponsored the evolution of specific techniques and representational devices in sculpture and painting - anatomy, mathematical perspective (i.e. projective geometry), aerial perspective, and the like.” (Myers, 1967, pg.204). The stiff body casings and large probing eyes suddenly gave way to the sensual bodies, carefully drawn from intensive studies of cadavers. The gilded doll house spaces are replaced by receding depths, drawing the eye back to some unfinished quest. A fascination with the spirit had been replaced by a fascination with the physical, in the arts no less than in the universities. Da Vinci and Michaelangelo were leaders of the age, protected and supported by Popes, Cardinals and princes. Themes from Greek and Roman mythology, once banished by the Christian authorities, are once again acceptable, even within Vatican City.

The church at this point, while remaining one of the most important patrons of the arts, begins wielding less and less spiritual control over the arts. The church at this point is more a political institution than a spiritual authority. The Roman Catholic Church controls Europe through vast land holdings, its own armies, and a strong authority over the ascension of kings. Positions of spiritual authority also come with wealth and land holdings. Because there is no inheritance for these priestly positions, they are often sold to wealthy friends of the church for the life of the recipient. The church is now a power broker using its awesome wealth to maintain control where claims of spiritual authority might be questioned. As a result, the focus of the church drifts. The high calling of God is giving way to a self-focussed interest in naturalism, humanity and the earthy life (Humanism). The unabashed nudity of Renaissance and Enlightenment art draws the gaze intently to the flesh. The artist is weaving fleshly visions around spiritual themes, indicative of a total disregard of spirituality within the higher levels of the church. Or worse, the artist, and here I immediately think of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, weaves a portrait of very unspiritual people in what is meant to be a spiritual pilgrimage. There is an honesty here which is at times a vulgar honesty.

This is not a planned change in the direction of the arts, but a lazy drift led by a Humanist zeitgeist among the wealthy elites. The learned men of the church are drawn by the same spirit finding a new fascination with Aristotle and Greek philosophy. A decadent culture has captured the church because the spiritual watchmen have fallen sound asleep. The royal houses of Europe are feeling less beholding to the Vatican and in a stronger position to bargain. For the person on the street this is not a democracy, but for the rulers the grip from Rome is being loosened. It is not hard to imagine that the Vatican's need for a spiritual cause inspires the Crusades at this time of dwindling spiritual authority.

For those in the lower strata of society, the rich exuberance of new wealth is not their experience. The pomp of the social elites is no longer a comforting shield against dark forces outside, but rather of bruising and unjust burden. The facade of spiritual authority begins to wear thin. This spirit of self-reflection also turned to a reflection on solidity of church doctrine. The result is a revolution that is both intensely spiritual and soaked in revolutionary fervor for justice. Several prominent movements called into question the leadership of Rome. Each was systematically and brutally repressed, until Luther. Aided by German dukes who are delighted to break the dominance of the Roman church, Luther narrowly escaped a papal plot against him. The German states in defiance of Rome assert their autonomy. So began the rupture of Catholic supremacy over Europe.

We are seeing a two step process breaking the political and spiritual and therefore artistic authority of the Roman Catholic Church. First the ruling elites begin experimentation and exploration yielding a decadent Humanism. Then the lower classes break the Roman Catholic authority altogether, ending the new decadence as well as the older stylized spirituality of the church. At this point ‘high arts’ become the art of the ruling elites, where a more modest and unadorned style is established by the Protestant churches. Large numbers of statues and paintings were removed and destroyed. This iconoclasm extended especially to reliquaries where the bones of saints and other presumed sacred objects inspired undue devotion to the object.

Other reformers, most prominently John Calvin, step in to spread the reform. In most cases the reformers avoided political confrontation, preferring to cooperate with established government. The extreme case was the rebellion by radical Anabaptists who seized control of Münster, holding the city for eighteen months and setting their own king in place. Luther had earlier opposed the Peasant Revolt and its wonton bloodshed and desecration of monasteries and churches. Protestant forces called on Catholic forces to help them crush the rebellion. Luther and the German reformers had no intention of sacrificing social order for reform, even if that meant cooperation with Catholic armies.


Protestant Ethic and Art

The protestant revolution brings a reaction against the arts. The more intensely spiritual the reformer the more likely to strip their world of artist adornment altogether. From clothing to cathedral all frill, all flesh, and all color is gone. What is left is an elegant simplicity. The Shakers produced exquisityl simple craft. They would not want to call it art, so as not to associate it with the decadence of the age. And the arts elites wouldn't call it that either, for the reason that Shaker simplicity was so entirely opposed to their culture. But ultimately the Shakers, with their crafts expressed a bare beauty that perfectly stated their spiritual vision. While the court culture of the age is giving the artists free reign, Puritans and other Protestants are expressing their antipathy to this fleshy art in an iconoclastic simplicity.

Ken Myers in a letter concerning Christians and federal funding for the arts, notes that the modern view of ‘art’ which has developed over the last four centuries pits art against our God given spirituality. The modern ethos is humanist, that is, man-centered and not God-centered. Reason and human will set the tone for modernity. “On this view, imagination is not an organ of meaning that assists us in recognizing boundaries, but imagination is a way of expressing unbounded human creativity, freedom, and power. This is why art has, for many modern people, displaced religion, and why many currents of modern art are so deliberately opposed to traditional religious belief.” (Ken Myers, The Mars Hill Audio Journal, Essay: “Ken Meyers on the NEA”, Sept. 2005).

Protestant Christians are often accused of engendering a war against progress in the arts. But from the other side of the fence, I believe that many Christians have rightly discerned that from the first hints of sensuality in the arts six centuries ago art had set itself in opposition to any spiritual value that was not centered on our human dreams, passions and desires. Art turned its back on God's dreams, passion and desire with the first glimmer of ‘enlightenment’. However, as Meyers notes, many Christians have gone to the other extreme, rejecting all arts, forgetting that expressions of our humanity, even if God is not mentioned, can also express the joy and the richness of creation. Solomon's “Song of Songs” is a collection of love poems, which abounds in sensuality. While it is common to spiritualize the text, generations of Christians and Jews have accurately seen this collection for what it is, the joy of a man and a woman. To become antiseptic in our approach to human relations horribly distorts the biblical message. It is not necessary to oppose all art, but rather to oppose anti-social or anti-religious bias in the arts. This includes vulgarity, especially pornography, encouragements to substance abuse, denigration of religious, political or social symbols, attacks against public figures, etc.

The pride of the Gothic builders represented a form of religious boast. As noted above, contact with the East had a great deal to do with the Gothic exuberance and developed into many new avenues of scientific inquiry. It was not long before Europe lost all sight of heaven. The stiff Gothic figures stretching heavenward soon give way to an aggressive sensuality in the arts. It is in this atmosphere that the reformers arrived. They were quick to embrace, or more properly stimulate, a changing social and political climate. Their greatest concern was to keep God foremost. As such they were opposed to the exuberant sensuality that was appearing in the arts of the time. They were equally opposed to the pride of gaudy public displays, whether in a cathedral or in dress.

Protestant churches were intentionally spare in decor, avoiding the grand boast of the Gothic predecessors. The first Protestant churches were Catholic churches in which much of the statuary had been removed, and the alter replaced by a communion table. Christian churches had always emphasized space for congregation, and so the architecture was unique from the start. Protestants in particular emphasized congregation for preaching and teaching. The emphasis turned to the Bible, so the meeting space was emphasized, the pulpit took focus, and there was a desire for more light in the interior.

Much of the Protestant approach was in reaction to Gothic excess. In comparison to the great cathedrals, Protestant churches are largely barren. Modern spaces may have grand architecture, but still little adornment. The Church of England has a slightly different culture as it separated from Rome for political rather than theological reasons. Hence Anglican churches keep their former embellishments. In general, the Protestant vision is concerned with seeking God. This begins with repentance and humility before the throne of heaven. Therefore, humble simplicity is the most characteristic element of Protestant art.

Protestant ethic stresses the soul laid bare before God. Protestant culture, therefore, encourages a stripping away of embellishment, particularly embellishments which pile on meanings, rather than opening windows to the deeper meaning. Theologian Paul Tillich describes Picasso's ‘Guernica’ as “the example par excellance of a Protestant understanding in which allegedly nothing is covered up and reality is squarely faced.” (On Art and Architecture, 1987. Page xvii).

Tillich also points to an almost counter-intuitive aspect of Protestant culture, a passion for the secular (On Art and Architecture, 1987. Page 189). Protestant culture places a heavy emphasis on hard work, sobriety and diligence. Colonianal pastor and reformed theologian Jonathan Edwards, also published hundreds of scientific studies. The heavenward gaze reflects directly back with a passion for improving the lives of those around us, through scientific understanding, through social and economic reform, and through justice. Protestant interest in art only travels as far as it proves itself useful to some social good. In a time in which much of Western art was becoming humanistic and steadily pushing the limits a religious tolerance, Prostestant regions wanted a more meaningful art, or none at all.


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