For 2,000 years, art has played a major role in spreading the Good News. God has not just spoken to us in words, but also in images. Patrick van der Vorst is the founder of Christian Art Today which offers a daily reflection on the Gospel reading accompanied by art. In this article he explores the importance of art throughout the ages.
For the past 2,000 years, art has played a major role in spreading the Good News. God has not just spoken to us in words, but also in images. Through visions to the Old Testament prophets, or parables spoken by Christ, God Himself has painted vivid images in our minds throughout the ages.
One of the key figures responsible for the blossoming of the arts in our Catholic tradition, is Saint John of Damascus (676-749AD). He lived during iconoclast times. The term iconoclasm comes from the Greek word Eikono-clasmos , which literally means ‘the breaking of images’. The iconoclasts wanted to get rid of all visible representations, in any shape or form, of Christ, Our Lady, any saints or martyrs. To be fair on the iconoclasts, their position was somewhat understandable: is God invisible? Yes. Is He beyond any representation? Yes of course. Old Testament Scripture also says that we should have no graven images of God. All this combined made for a very strong movement against the arts during the 8th century. John of Damascus however marked a distinct turning point of the Church’s attitude towards the arts. Saint John Damascene looked at the Prologue of the Gospel of Saint John: in Jesus, God became visible. ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us’ (John 1:14). We all know what ‘was made flesh’ means. Flesh is visible and tangible. God himself, by sending his Son into the world, made an icon, a picture, an image in the humanity of Jesus. If God uses images, then we as human beings can also use images. Furthermore, our icons, our depictions of God, Jesus, His Mother all become participations in the primordial iconography of God himself. This is the moment that through Saint John of Damascus the Catholic Church truly started embracing the arts. From that moment on, the Catholic Church embraced evangelisation that not only speaks, but that also shows!
Compared to most other religions in the world, our Christian faith places Beauty at the very centre of our spiritual lives. Unfortunately, over the past 40 years, we as a Church have somewhat neglected the power and the role beauty can play to bring people (back) to the faith. Beauty affects our intellectual thinking and our human feelings. Beauty is powerful. Ever since Blessed John Paul II, the way of beauty, the Via Pulchritudis has been urged to be rediscovered. A renewal of the Christian Arts is due, where we re-emphasise Beauty as a rational, emotional and highly effective resource for the transmission of the faith.
This is not art for art sake. It is art for God’s sake… A highly effective source to attract people to the Christian faith, but also a highly effective resource for people wishing to deepen their faith. By looking at art (which we do on a daily basis at Christian Art Today – linking the Gospel reading of the day, with a work of art), we see creative expressions of Scripture. These depictions help us to meditate, reflect and get more involved in the deep mystery of scripture. Art can make the Word of God pour deeper into our hearts and help to heal any wounds. Van Gogh’s depiction of the Sower gives us a vivid, cheerful image involving us deeper into the parable; Gothic Cathedrals make us gaze upwards, towards heaven; elaborately chased Renaissance chalices provide a physical focal point during the eucharist… all arts providing an effective route of access to God.
Christianity is not primarily a set of ideas or a moral code to follow. No. Christianity is all about having a relationship with Christ, with mind and heart. Good art moves the heart and stimulates thinking. So what is ‘good’ art then? That is very hard to define. What I would say is that we always have to be aware when looking at art, that art is as fallen as any other aspect of human existence. This brokenness and fallenness prevents the arts from always creating works for the glory of God or in line with his vision for our world. So we always need a critical, yet open, attitude towards the arts. In our human act of creating art, we should reflect the mind of our Maker, but unfortunately that isn’t always the case. All of our artistic endeavours should lead to reveal the full beauty of Scripture and our Church… a beauty that comes from God and which He shared with us.
Patrick van der Vorst is a former Director at Sotheby’s, founder of ValueMyStuff.com, former Dragons Den winner and now a seminarian at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome for the Diocese of Westminster.