History of Biblical Art, Part 2

We are continuing with our review of Chapter 5 from The Gift of Art by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. (1983).

Veith emphasizes the importance of this point in history for biblical art. “The hesitancy to depict God through imagery seemed countered now by God himself, who deigned to manifest himself concretely in the flesh and form of a human being.” While there was still resistance to overt idol worship, “soon images and paintings were widely employed to focus the devotion of the faithful.” Consequently, for centuries throughout the west, art served religion. The resulting works “sought to express the mysteries of the incarnation, atonement and resurrection in all their richness and tangibility. This was great art, addressing the great issues of form and content, integrating artistry and faith in a most satisfying way (p. 70).”

While a great deal of the art of the Middle Ages consisted of representations of religious subjects in paintings and icons, it was not exclusively so. “Pure, nonrepresentational design also flourished in the Middle Ages, most notably in the illuminated manuscripts (p 71).” At times such illuminations included fanciful, almost comical looking creatures—imaginings that were half-human and half-animal, fabulous beasts, and bizarre gargoyles. “What place do these creatures of pure fantasy have in the art of Christendom? I would suggest that they represent a tradition that is both biblically grounded and historically important.” Veith goes on to remind us that the second commandment restricts copying the image of forms that already exist. In so doing it encourages creativity by not restricting us from imagining forms that do not exist. “It seems to me that the biblical tradition is uniquely hospitable to radical fiction, to purely fantastical works that make no pretense of being true. . . [T]he Second Commandment did not so much forbid art as channel it into different directions, which proved both beautiful and highly imaginative ” (p. 72).

While the art of the Middle Ages may have been a high point of Christian artistry with its fusion of artistry and faith, it was not without its problems. The intention of the art may have been to help the worshiper focus on the person of Christ; too often the icon itself became the focus of worship. “In other words, the fusion of aesthetics and faith, for all its richness, lent itself to idolatry (p. 73).”

These abuses of art led to the Reformation. “The Reformation was an attempt to restore the gospel. . . It meant a rechanneling of art (p. 73).” The Reformer’s attack on idolatry resulted in the secularization of art. While the Roman Catholic artists of Italy still painted some Madonnas, “scenes of classical mythology, the legacy of Renaissance humanism,” become the subject matter of choice. “The artists of the Reformation, the German, Dutch and Flemish painters, on the other hand, paint landscapes and portraits, scenes of common life and ordinary families (p. 73).”

In the Reformed countries human beings were seen as the true image of God as set forth in Genesis. Consequently artists were encouraged to capture the images of ordinary people as a testament to the uniqueness and value of each person. The result is the wealth of portraits that we find from such masters as Rembrandt. “The Reformation emphasis that each individual can have a direct personal relationship to God, the teaching that family life is good and fully sanctioned by Scripture, that all vocations can be means of serving God—these teachings are eloquently proclaimed in the ‘secular’ subject matter of Reformation art, which is thus really no less religious than the more explicitly, other-worldly art of the Middle Ages (p. 74).”

“The great nonrepresentational art form of the Renaissance is music (p. 74).”

It seems that after the reformation, Christians began to express themselves less through the visual arts and more through other art forms, and Veith shifts his description of the contribution of biblical artists from the visual arts to the literary contributions of Samuel Johnson, Samuel Coleridge, and T. S. Eliot.

Concluding his chapter on the impact of the Bible on art throughout the changing cultures of western civilizations, Veith asserts, “Art belongs to the realm of the changeable—it must not be worshiped nor, I would say, treated with undue conservatism. But God does not change—theology may not be revised along with artistic fashions. God is continually at work in the midst of the changes, and his Word is continually relevant to every culture despite any ‘future shock’ (p. 76).” Christian artists, then, should not be overly attached to any artistic movement or style, but not fearful of any either. Instead, they should rely on God alone, keep in mind the legacy of Bezalel, consider the range and possibilities suggested in God’s Word, express the gifts given to them, and do pretty much what they want.

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