Dedicated to my teacher, Prof. Dr. Arthur Hofmann4, who introduced me to a Christian view of art, and my alma mater, the FETA Basel, which made this possible through lectures on art history during my theology studies.
"On the one hand, Christianity has nurtured art as no other philosophical or religious system ever has,"5 on the other hand, Christianity has viewed at least certain elements of art with great suspicion. How can we explain this tension? Is there some sort of Christian art, which Christianity recognizes, and a non-Christian art, which it rejects? Does the Bible, the Old Testament or the New, the holy writings of the Christian religion, welcome art or reject it? Yes and No!
The Dutch professor of Art, H. R. Rookmaaker, has answered the question on the Biblical justification of art with the statement, because "the supreme justification of all creation is that God has willed it to be"6. It needs no justification. He rightly includes art as a part of Creation and creativity.7
God Himself is the greatest artist; while Man's talents produce, in the Old Testament as well as in the New, great achievements in only a few areas. While Man is otherwise dependent on the abilities of others, God is a universal genius, the master and mastermind of all genres of art - He is architect, poet, fashion designer and color composer.8 Both mankind and the Christian are His work of art to begin with (see the Greek word 'poema' in Eph. 2:10).9
God loves beauty, and as Psalm 104:1-2 tells us, is Himself beautiful, because His robe is light, "Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, You are very great: You are clothed with honor and majesty, Who cover Yourself with light as with a garment ..."10
Most of the Old Testament references to artists (Ex. 31:6; 36:1-2, 4,8)
artistry or workmanship (Ex. 26:1+31, 28:6+15+39; 31:4-5; 35:32-35; 36:8+35;
39:8; compare the Second Temple, 2 Chron. 2:13; 3:10) deal with the decoration
of the Tabernacle and the Temple. A longer text, which Calvin cited in
will serve to illustrate the Old Testament's high evaluation of art:
"Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: See, I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold, in silver, in bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of workmanship. And I, indeed I, have appointed with him Aholiab the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have put wisdom in the hearts of all the gifted artisans, that they may make all that I have commanded you: the tabernacle of meeting, the ark of the Testimony and the mercy seat that is on it, and all the furniture of the tabernacle - the table and its untensils the pure gold lampstand with all its utensils, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering with all its untensils, and the laver and its base - the garments of ministry, the holy garments for Aaron the priest and the garments of his sons to minister as priests, and the anointing oil and sweet incense for the holy place. According to all that I have commended you they shall do." (Ex. 31:1-11)
Moses repeats the text a few chapters later: "Moses said to the children of Israel: See the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and He has filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom and understanding, in knowledge and all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of artistic workmanship. And He has put in his heart the ability to teach, in him and Aholiab, the son Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do all mannner of work of the engraver and the designer and the taspestry maker, in blue, purple and scarlet thread, and fine linen, and of the weaver - those who do every work and those who design artistic works. And Bezalel and Aholiab, and every gifted artisan in whom the Lord has put wisdom and understanding, to know how to do all manner of work for the service of the sactuaray, shall do according to all that the Lord has commanded." - "Then Moses called Bezalel and Aholiab, and every gifted artisan in whose heart the Lord had put wisdom, everyone whose heart was stirred, to come and do the work." (Ex. 35:30-35; 36:1-2)
This also means that not everyone is an artist. Both texts show that art requires ability, intelligence, knowledge and workmanship (Ex. 35:31).12 God gives men various gifts, but gives each different ones, and out of the combination and cooperation of gifts and abilities arise society, brotherly love and culture worthy of humanity. Both Paul and Peter expressly insist that in the New Testament Church not all believers have the same gifts, but that only the cooperative use of all the gifts of the Spirit enables the church to experience fellowship (1 Pet. 4:10-11; Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph.. 4:1-16).
Not that this evaluation is obvious. Whereas many artists act as if they were invulnerable - not only in their own field13 - others declare every human being a superior artist. Joseph Beuys, for example, claimed that man could pronounce uncontradicted everything he does and produces to be art. Helmut Schoeck, Professor of Sociology, protests that in that case, anyone can consider himself an art critic, and that artists ought not to react so sensitively to the rejection of their work!14
At this point, we must also consider the opinion that real (expensive) art may exclusively be the work of the one artist. Why should art preclude a division of labor according to ability? Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) led a painting company - rather in the manner of an assembly line. Modern art critics can hardly distinguish Rubens' work on the 1200 paintings produced from that of his assistants.15 What could be objectionable about that? Medieval man considered art a craft. Not until the fifteenth century did painting's status rise to the high position long held by poetry.16 Not until the eighteenth century was the artist considered "to be a genius, one of the great leaders of humanity, a seer, a prophet, a high priest of culture".17 Only recently have critics begun to ridicule the artist who profits by others' assistance. Ought he then not refuse any assistence at all, and produce his own paints, brushes, frames and canvas?
Similarily, Nicholas Wolterstorff18 Bruce Charlton19 rightly have criticised "The cult of originality"20. "In his autobiography, Karl Popper points out the fallacy which underlies the most prevalent myth of modern art: the cult of original genius. The idea is that the distingusihing feature of genius is to break the bounds of tradition. One important corollary of this notion is that the genius, to be genius, must always be ahead of his time (avant garde), and the true genius will not be appreciated by the unenlightened public until after many years ..."21
The work on the temple and the tabernacle demonstrates two further aspects of art; first, that it exists for its own sake and for the sake of beauty without any direct practical use. Secondly, it may be abstract, without any sort of photographic function. It exists for the sake of "beauty" (2 Chron. 3:6; Ex. 28: 2-3,40), that is, beauty in itself is its own purpose.22 Art serves "for glory and for beauty." (Ex. 28:2)
In front of the temple stood two huge decorated pillars (1 Kings 7:15-22; 2 Chron. 3:7,16-17), which had no specific architectural purpose.23 They did, however, have symbolic meaning, for they were called 'Jachin', ('God founds') and 'Boas' ('He comes in power.'), expressing God' nature artistically and symbolically.24 Symbols play an important role in Biblical revelation25 and, as a result, have continually served as inspiration for art. The language of art is the language of symbols.
In the decorations of the temple, God commanded the use of colors not known in nature.26 Apparently, artistic liberty includes the right to design flowers in 'unnatural' colors, to combine natural elements in new ways, even to depict things which do not appear in nature at all. The angels which guard the Divine throne, the Cherubim, are represented in various ways, without any visible model. These abstract images appeared on the Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 25:18-22), and embroidered and stylized on the ten curtains of the Tabernacle: "You shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine woven linen and blue, purple, and scarlet thread; with artistic designs of cherubim you shall weave them" (Ex. 26:1). The bronze pedestals which supported the basins in the court of the Temple were decorated with "lions, oxen, and cherubim ... below the lions and oxen were wreaths of plaited work." (1 Kings 7:29).
Above all, God revealed Himself to the apostles and prophets through His 'Word' in Scripture and in His 'Word', His Son - in a language of high artistic quality. Language is preferable for the imparting of the elements of faith,27 but God also presents Himself in imagery and symbols.
For this reason, we must understand that, on the one hand, because all art was made possible by God, there is such a thing as Christian art. Infact, all art is, in principle, Christian. According to the Christian perspective, even the artist who does not know God or even rejects Him, can create art, because he is God's creation made in the image of God, and because God in His grace does not deny the rebel His gifts.
Therefore, all which is true of culture is also true of art. Because God created Man as a cultural being, Christian culture includes not only those elements directly related to Christianity, but everything which results from Man's employment of his God-given abilities according to the Will of God.
The fact that the best artistic work should be reserved for worship may sometimes mean that non-Christian artists may be preferred to artists belonging to the people of God.30 Gene Edward Veith, a Lutheran, writes, "When building the Temple, Solomon thus chose the best artists known in his day, the Phonecians" (see 1 Kings 5 and 7; 2 Chron. 2).
Since, as Rousas J. Rushdoony has realised, "Art is most surely a form of communication"31, Christian concepts can be expressed by art, but it would be just as ridiculous to restrict art to such ideas, as it would be to restrict communication to purely Biblical subjects. On the other hand, the more important a message is, the more carefully its framework must be chosen, the more beautiful and artistic it should be.
The same is true of the art used in the worship service. Discussions of the significance of the Sunday service often refer to Romans 12:1, which reminds us that a Christian's whole life should be a "worship service". To be sure, our whole life is either a life of service to God or a life of rebellion against Him, but Scripture mentions both aspects - the fact that the Christian church meets to hear God's word together, to pray together, to sing together and to celebrate Communion as a Covenant sign together expresses the fact that all life is worship, according to God's commandment. Let us never contrast elements which the Bible combines! The Church celebrates an ordered worship service once a week because, not in spite of the fact, that the six day work week is worship. Because the Church is the Body of Christ, we celebrate in the Lord's Supper our creation and preservation through the death of Christ. For the same reason, worship is the most important element of the service, for worship should govern our daily lives.32 The term 'liturgy', (Gr. 'leiturgia') has been used since the Early Church to designate not only the artistic structuring of the worship service, but also the ordered life of prayer and worship during the whole week, and one's whole life as service for God.33 At the same time, the fact that the particular, ordered, collective worship service, the 'holy congregation' is required by God's commandment only once a week, means that the service demanded by God every day does not intend that we sing, pray or meet continually. The restriction to one day of the week shows that our daily labor also conforms with God's will, and that not only a cloistered life can be considered continual worship service.
Besides the many positive aspects of art, we need to consider the Bible's warnings about its misuse. Francis Schaeffer states, "It is not the creation of art that is wrong, but the worship of art"34. Jeremiah describes the way artists collect their valuable materials and use them to create - idols, but in the end, their idols are nothing more than "the work of skillful men" (Jer. 10:9). Preaching at the Areopagus in Athens, the art capital of his day, Paul turns to the Old Testament warning against idolizing art, "Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man's devising" (Acts 17:29). In Romans 1, he explains that mankind's original sin consisted in worshipping parts of Creation - images (artwork) of animals, human beings - instead of the Creator (Rom. 1:25).35 Art's value lies in the fact that it is Creation, but neither art nor the artist may be considered the Creator. Gene Edward Veith writes, "Art is not sacred, according to the Second Commandment"36.
Of course art does not automatically and necessarily lead to idolatry. The Bronze Serpent, for example, was cast according to God's command as a religious symbol. Anyone who looked at it was saved from the poisonous effects of snake bite (Num. 21:4-9). Later, God commanded Moses to store the image in the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle (and later in the Temple) as a memorial of this deliverance.37 In 2 Kings 18:1-4, however, we read that God commanded the destruction and irrevocable removal of this very same image, because the people had begun to worship the beautiful symbol of God's salvation as if it were itself divine38. The danger lay not the object itself, but the people's attitude towards it.
Both aspects of the Christian view of art - art as God's charge and art as a danger - belong together, as we see in Exodus 31 and 32.39 Chapter 31 describes the instructions for the artistic decorations of the Tabernacle. In the very next chapter, the High Priest misuses art to cast a beautiful golden calf, which the people then worshipped. In one breath, music, dance and other arts are abused both to worship Creation (a calf) instead of the Creator, and to justify irresponsible sexual relationships. Art thus has an ethical aspect: it either contributes to human well-being or instigates the destruction of mankind or of Creation, as we can see in the art of National Socialism.
It is always ultimately a question of "the art of our time caught between God and Satan" (to use the title of an article by Arthur H. Hofmann).40 Art serves either the Creator and Creation or the one who wishes to supplant the Creator and destroy His Creation.
Art, made possible by God, does not become un-Christian when it fails to depict specifically Christian themes, is produced by a non-Christian artist or introduces new variations and styles, but when it loses the awareness that Man's creative ability can only be sensibly used in submission to the Creator, never in opposition to Him or to His Creation.
The painter Paul Gaugin (1848-1903) for example wrote in 1883, that artistic effort is the only way for Man to ascend to God,41 a statement which Nicolas Wolterstorff rightly describes as the identification of the artist's creative ability with God's.42
A. S Huffington, whose monumental biography43 of the painter demonstrates great sympathy for him, suprisingly also suggests his darker aspects, described in the book's subtitle, "Genius and Violence". How negative would the book have been, if it had been written by a critic of Picasso's art or world and life view (Weltanschauung)? Even so, it is "the story of a man incapable of love,"44 who frequented brothels as early as at the age of fourteen, who continually had sexual affairs even as an old man, playing one lover off against another and even driving them to suicide, "not, however, out of a desire for love or possession, but due to an inner compulsion to destroy."45 Picasso formulated it himself in one of his few interviews, "For me, a picture is the sum of destruction. I make a painting - and then destroy it."46
Huffington continues, "Picasso saw all of Creation as an opponent, and had not become a painter in order to devise works of art ... but weapons. a manifest of his destructive view of art."47 Art was for him an "orgy of destruction."48 One lexicon describes Picasso's Cubism as the "elementary demolition of the human figure."49 Art, however, does not remain mere theory: either it reflects reality or influences it. How could a man who expresses such scorn of mankind, particularly of women, in his art, then advocate human rights?
Despair, destructive passion, hate and anger drove Picasso's life. From his father, who revered him, but whom he checkmated, to his children, whose claims could only be asserted in a court of law, he left behind him a trail of women, relative and friends whose lives he had ruined. He never regretted his generally ignored support for Stalin and his 'Peace Movement', for which he devised the popular symbol of the Dove of Peace. He employed his monumental genius in a war against the Creation. His destructive Weltanschauung shaped the artistic style of his day. "Genius and Violence"50 describe him perfectly. Should we not pause to consider the implications of the fact that the "greatest artist of our century" reflects our century so perfectly?
The art historian Gerlinde Volland has investigated the artist Francisco José de Goya (1746-1828) in a similar fashion in Männermacht und Frauenopfer: Sexualität und Gewalt bei Goya51 (Male Power and Female Victims: Sexuality and Violence in Goya's Work). Using his cycles "Caprichos" and "Desastres de la Guerra", she asserts that Goya's attitude was neither enlightened nor emancipated, but that he depicted and defended men's sexual power over women.
We see that art cannot withdraw into an neutral ivory tower, in which no one can question its ethics or its consequences. Art forms Weltanschauung, and modern artist have so consciously striven to do so, that no further proof should be necessary.52 Just as Picasso did, art reflects the Weltanschauung of its time, but also impresses itself on it.
I would like to conclude with a challenge. Even though we have seen that Christian art can be produced by non-Christians, believers are still challenged to do their part in the artistic world, so that the Creator will be glorified. The question will always be the same: who shapes whom? Will Christians shape the values, and thus the art, of others, or will they allow themselves to be influenced by others? For many centuries, the best art was the work produced to glorify God; this specifically Christian work was the standard for all other art. Nowadays things are usually the other way around. Christians copy what others have done and seldom have anything of worth to oppose the destructive suggestions of modern art.53 The influence of once widespread Christian culture is still visible in the work of many artists who have no official connection with Christianity, but our civilization's resources of Christian values seems to be exhausted. We need believers and artists who make a conscious effort to express the all-comprehensive aspect of our faith and are prepared to influence their culture through art. Periods of spiritual awakening have always been prepared, strengthened and followed by wonderful art. The Reformation,54 for example, was prepared by Albrecht Durer's (1471-1528) fifteen wood-prints on the Apocalypse (1498), and the Reformation itself led to further artistic renewal55, for "without a Luther, there could never have been a Bach."56
Because "Art is an inescapably religious activity,"57 art exists as art initiated by God or it is no art at all.58
Hoffmann, Arthur H. "Bildende Kunst unserer Zeit im Spannungsfeld zwischen Gott und Satan," in Theologie unter dem Wort: Beiträge der FETA zu Lehre und Forschung, edited by Samuel Külling. Riehen: Immanuel Verlag, 1984.
Kelly, Douglas Floyd (ed.), Symposium on the Media and the Arts. Journal of Christian Reconstruction 10 (1983).
Kennison, Jo. H. and Arend L. Robert. "God the Artist," Education for Eternity 4 (1981) 7 (Oct./Nov.) El Cajon, Cal.: Christian Heritage College. 1-4.
Kennison, Jo. H. and Arend L. Robert. "God the Artist," Education for Eternity 5 (1982) 1 (Dec. 1981/Jan. 1982). 1-4.
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Rookmaaker, H. R. The Creative Gift: Essays on Art and Culture. Westchester, Ill.: Cornerstone Books, 1981.
Rushdoony, Rousas J. "The Meaning and Greatness of Christian Art," Journal of Christian Reconstruction 10 (1983) 1:3-13.
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Claus, Jürgen. Theorien zeigenössischer Malerei in Selbstzeugnissen. rowohlts deutsche enzyklopädie. Reinbek, Germany: Rowohlt, 1963.
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Jordan, James B. Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World. Niceville, Fla.: Transformation press, 1993.
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Volland, Gerlinde. Männermacht und Frauenopfer: Sexualität
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