The Blitz History of Christian Art

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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, one of which 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 became more clear when Hezekiah destroyed 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 3:14.

In the Jewish DNA of Christianity, the tension between the making of idols and the creation of icons would continue.

We know that in the first century the Jewish community used 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, venerated statues, and deified its emperors.Christianity would eventually have to answer the question about how to relate to this world in which 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, as art requires a permanent location and some disposable income. This finally happened for the church 200 years later in AD 225.

The oldest church building that has been located is decorated with frescoes. These frescoes 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-Europos, 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 appeared 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 began to emerge as a motif, eventually taking the role of the central symbol for the entire faith.

After the fall of Rome in 476 and the beginning of the European dark ages, art begins to play an even greater role as a communication tool. In places where few could read, and even fewer understood Latin, the images decorating churches and manuscripts became increasingly essential. About 100 years after the fall of Rome another interesting development arose: Pope Gregory the Great began 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 1500 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 ceased in the late 700s after the rapid and dramatic emergence of Islam onto the world stage. The Qur’an strictly forbade all imagery. A series of calamities in the Byzantine Empire forced the emperor and many in his court to forbid icons; those who objected to the use of such icons were deemed “iconoclasts”. For about 100 years, this 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 Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Meanwhile, back in Western 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 Byzantines. 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 matter 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 once again. By the 1300s the first signs of the Renaissance (meaning “rebirth”) were happening in Italy. Over the next 200 years this amazing rebirth of painting, sculpture, and learning would sweep across Western Europe. This rebirth would trigger the construction of churches and the advance of technology. It would also trigger a rebirth in literature, 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 of this artistic expression was suddenly challenged in the early 1500s by the outbreak of 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 inherently 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 as well. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s 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 – 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 anything 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 similar to 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 of a new renaissance where artists have the ability to tell stories in a new and powerful way!


Christ Otto

Christ “rhymes with wrist” is the director of Belonging House and is the author of several books for artists including his latest Mary: When God Shares His Glory. You can find out more at belonginghouse.org.

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  • elizbt says:

    Well written, a challenging reminder that we must seize this moment as the Father leads, and risk new and innovative artistic ventures!

  • John Campbell says:

    Bey edifying, concise andinformative overview!

  • Phil Spray says:

    The problem is that anything can be overdone. Today’s worship music has changed from participation to performance. Some of our churches look more like rock concert venues. When I was younger, congregational singing was the norm. Not a lot of that seems to be happening today. I call this situation the Hot Sauce Principle: If some is good, more is not necessarily better. I think this has led to the idolization of the performers rather than the message.

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