History of Biblical Art

I am sharing with you a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book, The Gift of Art, by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. (1983). Chapter 5 offers a look at the impact that the Bible has had on art history. Veith introduces the chapter by saying, “it will be helpful now to consider the actual practice of artists who would consider themselves in the biblical tradition (p 63).”

Veith asserts that “our Western imagination is dominated by the Greeks, (p. 63-64)” which accounts for our inclination to imagine in terms of visual images. Even in Western literature great effort is taken to describe the setting of the story and the appearance of the characters. Certainly in the visual arts there is traditionally a preference for art that copies something that exists in the outside world. “The Bible, however, works from different aesthetic assumptions. For the Hebrews, one relates conceptually to other people not by seeing them but by hearing them. Thus, to take a very important example, there is little talk of seeing God in the Bible. Such an experience is reserved for the future life (p. 66).” Instead, in the Bible, the emphasis is on hearing God–listening to the Word of God. Hearing-and-obeying capture an intimacy that seeing does not. “The peculiarities of the Hebraic imagination may well be due to the prohibition of images. This is not to say that the sense of sight is unimportant or that there are no visual images in the Bible, but simply that there is a different conceptual emphasis. Much of Scripture is difficult to picture (p. 66).”

According to Veith this prohibition of images led to abstractionism in the visual arts. “This can be seen most clearly in the art of Islam, which in many ways has continued and extended the heritage of the radical monotheism of the Hebrews (p.67).” After reminding us of the mosaics and tapestries of Islam that present a riot of colors and interlocking forms that somehow come together to be harmonious, symmetrical, and beautiful, Veith concludes, “There can be no better evocation of human life, with its freedom, variety and occasional appearance of random meaninglessness, all subsumed under the providence of God, who orchestrates all the seemingly contingent, accidental events of a person’s life according to his saving design (p. 67).” Veith cautions us, however, that this monotheistic abstractionism is not to be equated with modern
abstractionism. “Contemporary abstractionism pales before monotheistic abstractionism (p. 67-68).” In Veith’s view, contemporary abstractionism is generally extremely simple with single shapes and few colors and reflects a simplistic vision of despair and nihilism. On the other hand, the Persian carpet, an example of monotheistic abstractionism “reflects the aesthetic of the psalmist who rejoiced in the complex texture of God’s multiple and abundant designs: ‘O Lord, how manifold are thy works!’ (Ps 104:24) (p. 68).”

“With the coming of Christ and the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles, the two streams of the Hebraic and the classical began to run together (p. 68).” “To both the Hebraic and the Greek imagination, the message of Christ was staggering (p. 68).” The Greeks knew about the Logos, the divine pattern that lies behind creation. To the Greek, the concept or idea was perfection. Matter, on the other hand, was despised. To suggest that the Logos, the Word of God, would ever become matter was disgusting. The Hebrew mind, however, embraced the visible world as a reflection of God’s creative act, but to think that God “shares his being with anyone else was blasphemy (p 69).”

What does the coming of Christ signify for the artist? “The Incarnation means that God reveals himself in and by means of matter (p. 69).” We find in the gospel story that all matter as well as all human experiences are penetrated by the presence of God himself and thus given a dignity that is inspiring. From Mary’s womb, to the birth and swaddling clothes, to working with one’s hands around the lakes and field of Galilee, to the anguish in Gethsemane, to the physical torture by Pilate, to the death upon Golgotha—the human experience, the real world, is sanctified by the presence of God. “The physical world and human senses are thus given a value they never had under the Greeks, a function anticipated in the Old Testament (p. 70).”

Next week we will continue looking at the role of biblical art in the Middle-Ages, the Reformation, and the Post-Reformation.

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