Christian Cyclopedia

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Art, Ecclesiastical and Religious.

1. The specific area of artistic endeavor that relates to the decoration of ch. bldgs., performs as symbol and article of use in the acts of the liturgy, and relates individual and communal expression of a faith life. Except for a few brief but catastrophic periods of iconoclasm, the Christian faith has not only made room for, but welcomed the artist and craftsman into the service of the ch. Since the beginning of Christianity, the ch. has been the sponsor of art considered great not only in the context for which it was intended but as the highest expression of artistic feeling and craft. When the ch. did not sponsor good art, it did not express itself meaningfully to the world in any way.

2. Earliest Christian art came under many influences simultaneously. Palestine, Asia Minor, Alexandria, and Rome each brought some element of its own artistic heritage. In the W the dominant influence was Gk. classic art; in the E, Oriental art imposed its style on Christian subject matter. Technically, the art of the catacombs is more a type of writing than a style of art. Fresco painting included symbols of Christ such as the Chi Rho, the Alpha and Omega, and the fish. Rarely was the cross used, not only because it still held its context as an instrument of torture, but because the Christians at this time concerned themselves with a theol. of hope and deliverance rather than death. Themes for early paintings followed this line, depicting such stories as Jonah, the 3 men in the fiery furnace, Paul being let down the wall in a basket, and the Good Shepherd. When deemed proper, the early Christians were not adverse to using pagan art for their own purposes. Thus the Roman god of the flocks, Hermes, provided a pattern for the Good Shepherd. Generally, however, the art of the early Christians can be described as abstract, geometric at times, symbolic and with no intention of depicting worldly reality. The human figure was deliberately distorted so that spiritual effect might take precedence.

3. Byzantine art, though a direct outgrowth of early Christian art, introduces a new style element, the Oriental, and becomes a style in itself. The chief capitol of this era, Constantinople, was on the border between E and W; its art was a mixture of these 2 elements. The imperial palace and court of the emp. became the influence for the decoration of the churches. Wealth and pomp were carried over to the ch. both in the materials used and in the subject matter depicted. Mosaic, with its gold and glitter, became the primary pictorial medium. In this medium, colored glass, very luminous and in the form of very small cubes called tesserae, are cemented into the white stucco of the wall. Gold tesserae, glass fused to gold leaf, were often set into the stucco at angles, thus catching light and reflecting it in various directions. The effect is an overall richess of color, light, and subject matter. Often the subject matter included the emperor and empress and members of the court. Symbolism was also used extensively, esp. in defining the sacraments. A formal plan for decorating churches was devised that determined what decorations should be used, where they should be placed, and by what technique. All Byzantine churches used this plan. Great works of Byzantine art are at the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Istanbul), in the 5th c. churches of Ravenna, It., done under the direction of Emp. Justinian, who resided there when Ravenna was the capital of the W Empire, and in Sicily, particularly at Monteale. St. Mark's Cathedral, Venice, contains excellent examples of later Byzantine mosaic. This age also provided many fine examples of work in the minor arts, all of which rely heavily on the use of brilliant color and symbolism. Enamel ware, ivory carving, and precious metal were used in making plaques, icons, book covers, caskets, and liturgical items. A gen. description of this era would include the classical and Oriental influence, the rejection of the natural, and the use of wealth and light to transfer the observer's attention to the emotional and mystical elements of the liturgy.

4. Rome fell into utter ruin, and after the death of Charlemagne the ch. and its art went into hibernation. Awakening was due primarily to 3 influences: the monastic system, the Crusades, and the feeling of new life brought on by the passing of the year 1000 and its threat of the millennium. Monastaries maintained workshops to direct the skills of the artist towards the needs of the ch. Attempts were made, esp. in Fr., to encourage the style of the particular region rather than rely on a classical or Byzantine influence to dictate form. Thus each of various tribes that made up the Eur. complex provided a peculiar style to form a conglomerate whole. Esp. in painting we find considerable use of barbaric motifs. These worked their way into MS illuminations and provided strong influence for the resultant Gothic style. Since the ch. was now the patron of the arts, the state was removed as subject matter. God was the sole concern of the artist's work. There was very little attempt to create aesthetically pleasant work but rather to extend the work as a part of worship. Art now became an addition to the spoken word. Of all the art forms used at this time, sculpture can best be said to epitomize the age. Each ch. had its patron saint, sculpted and carried in procession on special occasions. The churches themselves were stark and massive and served also as fortresses. The sculptor's art kept them from being drab. The portal of the ch. provided the best arena for the sculptor, esp. at the tympanum. Here was depicted the Last Judgment, the Glorified Christ, or Christ surrounded by the 4 apocalyptic figures representing the Gospel writers. The sculptor was also called upon to execute crosses and crucifixes, many rivaling in wealth and beauty those done in the Byzantine age. The era can be summarized thus: ultra serious and devout, extremely inventive, with a concern for symbolizing truths that exist beyond the realm of human understanding and experience. Significant Romanesque art can be found in Fr. at Moissac, Chartres, Arles and Toulouse, in Ger. at Worms, Speyer and Hildesheim, in It. at Pisa and St. Ambrogio's in Milan, and in Eng. at Durham.

5. If the Byzantine age can be called majestic, and the Romanesque age devout, the Gothic age can be called intellectual, since art and architecture combined to convey intellectual concepts of God as He exists in nature. The Gothic artist looked to every aspect of life around him for subject matter. Reality itself was symbolic. The artist's task was to refine the forms of reality. Under the influence of Thomas Aquinas and his definition of beauty the artist tried to capture an ultimate in aesthetic perfection. There is today a tendency to regard this search as purely contemplative or religious. But the Gothic artists were concerned primarily with artistic problems. They brought to their work special influences that existed nowhere else. Their work contains N characteristics. It is not coincidental that the reach of the tall Fr. cathedrals towards the light occurs in a land of tall trees. In the cold N, light was essential. It was an element in Aquinas's definition of beauty. The stained glass window was an attempt to capture and use this light. Paintings and MS illumination also tried to use light with brilliant and vibrating color. Gothic art is essentially the art of the cathedral. Even many of the paintings used the cathedral as a setting. For the medieval artist the cathedral was the beginning and end of his life and livelihood. At the outset Gothic art expressed emotional mysticism; in the hands of fine artists it spoke to its time. Eventually it became aesthetic hack work, repetitious and devoid of spiritual significance. By the time of the Reformation and It. Renaissance, Gothic art was ready to succumb to the concepts of humanism. Works that remain as great statements of the Gothic ideal are in Fr. at Amiens, Reims, Chartres, Beauvais, and Paris. Cologne and Ulm hold fine examples of Ger. Gothic art. Salisbury and Canterbury are high peaks of the Gothic expression in Eng. In It., Gothic art never reached a pure expression. Orvieto and Siena contain some of the best examples; the Cathedral of Milan tries to epitomize the best features of all Gothic art and becomes simply burlesque. (See also Church Architecture)

6. The Gothic spirit was felt in It. primarily in painting. The Sienese school used the sense of humility and spirituality that was Gothic and yet incorporated a new feeling for emotion and human expression. The ultimate ideal of this school is found in the work of Giotto. His work in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua is a display of utmost concern for spiritual feeling. The Renaissance begins with him. While it would be wrong to reject the work of the Renaissance artists out of hand, it would be equally wrong to categorize this era as Christian. Much art production at this time was religious or sacred in content, but its main purpose was to show the mastery of the artist over a particular art problem. As a result, churches tended to become museums.

7. The Prot. Reformation, though not antiart, resulted in iconoclastic misunderstandings from which we are only now beginning to recover. Few artists painting under the influence of the Reformation created a specific Prot. style. Rembrandt* did. His work is often Christ-centered. But it is not the Christ of majesty; it is the Christ who heals the sick, who makes Himself known at the level of mankind. If distinctions are made between RC and Prot. art, they must begin historically at this point — the choice between the depiction of Christ's majesty and exalted state and the resultant majesty and glory of His followers, and His depiction as the suffering servant and the resultant servitude of His followers. This distinction is general but ecumenical considerations seem to be reducing the division.

8. The ch. is again using the expression and craft of the artist. The artist in turn is finding in religious and ecclesiastical art an opportunity to devote his expression to a particular need. Such organizations as The Luth. Soc. for Worship, Music, and the Arts, and The Am. Soc. for Ch. Architecture encourage churches and artists to meet on common ground. The list of artists receiving extensive recognition while concentrating on religious and ecclesiastical art is growing steadily. RRCj

See also Aesthetics; Theology.

G. G. Coulton, Art and the Reformation, 2d ed. (Cambridge, 1953); K. M. McClinton, Christian Church Art Through the Ages (New York, 1962); E. Male, Religious Art from the Twelfth to the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1963); E. Male, The Gothic Image (New York, 1958).

Edited by: Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson
©Concordia Publishing House, 2000, All rights Reserved. Reproduced with Permission

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The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod

Original Editions ©Copyright 1954, 1975, 2000
Concordia Publishing House
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Content Reproduced with Permission

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