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JENNIFER HILL- LISMORE CO-HORT


Oct. 2014

Christian cultures from the past to modern times have used visual and
performing arts to express and critique their faith. In this assignment it
will be argued, as a natural and expressive element of our faith, arts have
strengthened our relationship with God.

Throughout history religion and religious ideas are presented in art,


architecture, music, dance, drama, literature and film(
cangoul.catholic.edu.au). A theological perspective is often portrayed by

these arts therefore via the study of these art forms one is able to view
significant developments in the tradition of Christianity and how it is
expressed and critiqued by these arts.

As described by David Morgan visual culture is determined by a visual


network i.e. a viewer, fellow viewers, the subject, the context of the
subject and the rules that govern the relationship between viewers and
subject (Rhizomes 2004, issue 25); Art and theology offer to the viewer,
order and orientation, provided one has learned to participate in them. In
addition to this, aesthetic enlightenment must not replace the central core
of Christianity i.e. the Gospel narrative (Howes 2009).

The creative arts play a paramount role in moulding the world view of any
one culture and individual (Hongmark 2010). It can be argued our world

view throughout history is our map of reality. In addition to this our world
picture is a map of reality made up of images, symbols, myths and stories
(Ryken, 2000). In analysing Christian art forms we can we are able to see
that man is one who grasps and shapes reality with the aid of great
images, metaphors, and analogies( Niebuhr 1963 p. 151). The artist is
greatly influenced by his cultural and social setting thus affecting the style
and themes of his art work. Following on from this statement one can
view creative arts as a way of enriching human life because of they
appeal to our imaginations and connect us with the transcendent. Over
time man has used the arts to probe religious beliefs and therefore this
has allowed a deeper understanding of his relationship with God. Via the
arts mankind throughout time has undergone the process of internalising,
synthesising and representing our faith in various forms. This process
requires both critical and creative skills which have aided the transmission
of faith.

Theological paintings, sculptures, textiles and illuminations from


centuries ago were the visual counterpart to religious stories. The Church
recognises that artists exercise a form of ministry when their works reflect
the beauty of God and lead people to consider the place of the sacred in
their lives( Cangoul.catholic.edu.au ). Art offers us a visual synthesis of all
dimensions of our faith and expresses the mystery of our faith and never
hides it ( Pope John Paul II). As believers and non-believers we are given
the opportunity to understand how creative arts gives theology eyes, ears
and voice to communicate with God ( Howes, 2009).

The experience of Religion and its belief system is multifaceted. Religious


art, religious belief and religious experience are in a close relationship and
are best described by four dimensions i.e. iconographic ,didactic
,institutional and aesthetic (Howes, 2009). Mirroring the creative ability of
God, artists use the gifts given to them to explore this experience .This
intrinsic desire to express our faith via art assists man to understand
Gods message to us. This desire is evident throughout time and is
inextricably linked with religious faith and shows the work of artists being
associated with the holy and divine.
Christian art has evolved over the centuries to present and transmit the
faith, some of the earliest forms being found in the Roman catacombs.
This art work presented a mix of mythology and the Hebrew bible. As this
method of spreading the faith became part of a cultural practice many
famous works of art were produced e.g. The Last Supper in the second
and third Century Capila Greca.

Although the art of this type was simplistic and related to the natural
world view of the artist it echoed the belief in the goodness of creation
and the existence of something greater than life on earth. The scenes
retold visually the story of Christ , these by their very nature were images
which were a manifestation of a faith waiting to be expressed
( Armstrong,2009). A further example of this is the catacomb of SS.
Pietro, Marcellino, Rome, which indicates an expression of faith that rested
on the hope of an after-life in heaven. As a result of the art used in the

catacombs the viewer can see the sacred burial ritual through a different
lens due to the artistic work of early Christians. Via this art work the artist
proclaims to the world that is not a Roman but rather a Christian burial
site. Already in these ancient times we see art as an expression of faith
and also a way of critiquing the acceptance of Christianity. Although this
catacomb shows a distinct Roman influence in regard to the artwork, the
artist clearly sends a message of Christianity and expresses the belief in
an after-life. The art work shows clearly a dome of Heaven, inscribed with
a cross, the main symbol of faith. Within this art work the symbol of Christ
the Saviour is represented by the Good Shepherd i.e. a shepherd with a
sheep on his shoulders (Janson,2004). This early art form still very much
influenced by the artists world view of Roman designs and landscape
backgrounds without doubt expresses the faith of the time using a new,
symbolic content (Janson, 2004) .

In the beginning Christian artists used narrative art to relay the religious
message. This technique required each image to be connected to the next
e.g. images of Daniel relate to images of Jonah and Noah, these could not
be interpreted in isolation. Following Constantine Christian art took on a
more dogmatic meaning as a divine symbol (Jefferson, 2014) however
they still portrayed the essence of communities and their beliefs thus
allowing the viewer an understanding of the development of Christianity
at the time.

In the early Church very few people could read or write, the result being a
focus on spoken word to deliver the retelling of Jesuss life, the nativity,
crucifixion and resurrection. It is from these retellings we see the central
beliefs of Christianity develop, which over time became the credo of
Christianity.

Perhaps one of the most easily recognised artistic and symbolic


expressions of faith in early Christianity is that of Celtic Christian design,
in particular the ninth century Book of Kells. As an art form the interwoven
patterns of intricate work represent theologically that all things relate and
all things are part of Gods creation. The Book of Kells through its intricate
designs illustrates the Latin text of the 4 Gospels , in addition to this the
world known Celtic Cross design enabled pre-literate Celts to access the
Christian concept of Gods continuing connection with life on earth
( Hines-Brigger,2001)

During the time of Constantine when Christianity was made a legal


religion a new setting was created for the expression of faith. This faith
was expressed in the form of architecture whereby the Roman style
basilica was adopted but redesigned for the placement of an altar and
extra wings were added which gave the viewer a cross formation. Prior to
this the meaning of Church was related to the congregation, now we
see a shift from small groups of worshippers meeting in individual homes
to a large gatherings of people in a church building designed on a grand
scale. The design and scale of these buildings expressed the

overwhelming greatness and enormity of God by way of towering domes,


vertical pillars and exquisite art works. In many ways the church building
shaped who the churchgoers become and proclaims its own message, this
message may or may not be in tune with what is preached ( Howes 2009).

When we view prayer as a means of celebrating and interpreting the life


and faith experience of the person and community (cangoul.catholic.edu.au)
the importance of narrative must be acknowledged in expressing faith.
Due to the narrative nature of scripture there was a natural progression to
retell the scripture within the Church in the form of dramatic reenactments. Medieval drama found its origin in the liturgy of the Mass
with re-enactments of biblical events. The hymns and music of the
Church through the Middle Ages were used to promote sound doctrine as
well as an expression of faith. The hymns were text driven and came in
the form of monophonic chants. This expression of faith went hand in
hand with performing arts in the context of the Mass. There is strong
evidence to suggest that dramatic performance from the Middle Ages
onwards was a vehicle for Christians to pass on the story of their faith but
also in later times to critique and pose questions about their faith. Drama
was used to tell the story of Jesus from birth to Resurrection and saints but
in more recent times via film it has set the scene for audiences to be more
analytic of what was being presented.

In looking at the various movements which influenced the work of artists


there appears to be a shift in attitude whereby art and architecture was

not only for liturgical and educational purposes but also to generate
primary religious experience ( Howes ,2009 p.93) . This idea was most
evident following the Baroque period when the painting of icons was seen
as a way of establishing the traditions of the church. The message for the
use of icon art is best expressed by the following: Icons are in painting
what the Holy Scriptures are in writing (Howe 2009 pg.115). In the
Eastern Church the icon stood out as a key element of Byzantine worship
with its heavenly golden background and hieratic figures ( Armstrong ,
2009) . From the Second Council of Nicea II onwards Armstrong argues the
use of icon art allowed a harmonious joining of intellect and imagination
based on incarnational theology which in turn promoted a personal
expression of faith veneration (Armstrong 2009). This is further supported
by Jason who argues paintings of Christ and the Enthroned Madonna for
example functioned as living images to instruct and inspire the
worshipper(Jason 2004 p.42). The use of holy cards is evidence of the
non-verbal translating what verbal theology could not impart (Rahner,
1982). The practice of using holy cards as a form of evangelisation was
used to promote the faith in indigenous cultures in America by the
Spanish and Portuguese missionaries. The intricacies of the theology may
not have been understood by such people at the time but undoubtedly the
images imprinted the message of salvation by Jesuss death on the cross
and Marys intercession. Evidence of this can be seen by the image of Our
Lady of Guadaloupe on Juan Diegos cloak, thus demonstrating faith
expressed and critiqued ( Armstrong , 2009).

The Middle Ages saw a style of art which portrayed art as an expression of
piety and devotion ( Janson ,2009). Throughout this period of time artistic
activity escalated as a way of delivering religious ideas not only by
drawing and painting but also using stained glass , stone, chants, hymns
and plays. The Cathedral became the focus of prayer and community
where visual images portrayed the congregations connection with God.
It is worthy to note at this point in relation to the history of faith that the
Catholic Church was critiquing itself in relation to what they thought was
needed to continue the spread of Christianity. The Church at the time
realised the need to engage the wider community by way of archecture. In
the late 1100s adaption of Roman basilicas saw a new architecture the
Gothic style. Notre Dame in Paris and Westminster Abbey in London give
evidence of the mindset of worship being more grandiose. The images in
these buildings were more extravagant and colourful in Catholic places of
worship compared to Protestants who preferred less decoration. The
maximising of the key elements of light and upward space which draws
the viewers eyes and prayers to heaven is symbolic of the type of praise
which flavoured the faith at the time.

In regard to hymns and music of the Church through the Middle Ages it
can be said these were used to promote sound doctrine. The hymns were
text driven and came in the form of monophonic chants. This expression
of faith went hand in hand with performing arts in the context of the Mass.
Medieval drama originated in the liturgy of the Church in the tenth
century. Additions to the Mass in the form of sung antiphonal tropes were

adapted through the use of imitation of an action, impersonation and


dialogue (Goldstein, 2004). There is strong evidence to suggest that
dramatic performance from the Middle Ages onwards was a vehicle for
Christians to pass on the story of their faith but also in later times to
critique and pose questions about their faith. Drama was used to tell the
story of Jesus from birth to Resurrection but in more recent times via film
it has set the platform for audiences to be more analytical of what is being
presented in a modern day culture.

In the modern world arts still seek to express and critique the Christian
faith as man turns to creative artists for visions of transcendence
(Armstrong 2009). However it is a different style of religious interpretation
as it no longer points solely to the vertical dimension (love of God). In
todays society through Church social teachings we see an emphasis on
faith demonstrated in a horizontal dimension (love of neighbour). It is
through the interplay of these two dimensions modern day film making
can serve a religious function. Film captures the imagination of man and
gives the opportunity for the viewer to critique their world view and make
sense of their world. When the viewer watches film they bring their faith
judgements to the event. Robert Johnson, in Reel Spirituality, suggests
that a film calls upon both experiential and analytical responses ( chap. 8,
Responding to Movies Theologically, p. 151-72). It is the analytical
response that movie makers challenge by posing questions about the
traditions of faith. Movies in the context of Christianity are the interface
between church and the world. Films are in a position to critique our faith

as they challenge the viewer to wrestle with theological questions, provide


glimpses of transcendence and transformation and portray the human
condition ( Blake, 2002).
In todays world concern is often expressed in regard to the dwindling
numbers present at Church in contrast to this cinemas are full with people
engaged in with movies that echo the Christian story by way of themes,
biblical motifs and narrative . These modern day movies draw upon their
audience in a challenging or subversive way ( Beattie, 2004).
As viewed in Mel Gibsons movie the crucifixion of Jesus is of
unprecedented violence which sends a clear message about the modern
cultures imagination. The Christ in Mel Gibsons movie is stereotyped and
fails to reflect the Christ who was deemed powerless and tortured because
of his solidarity with the oppressed. The elements of persecution in this
movie fail to portray the relationship between Christs death and Gods
salvation of the world ( Beattie, 2004). This modern day visual medium
presents a new form of critiquing and expression of faith.

In conclusion it is evident throughout history that visual and performing


arts enhance and express our faith by developing a strong relationship
with the church and God. The creative work of artists mirrors Gods
creativeness and is a pathway to teach and inspire mankind. Visual arts
have the ability to bring culture and Christianity into a closer relationship
therefore enriching the faith development of mankind. Visual
representations of Christ and the Christian story undoubtedly express and

critique our faith but in addition to this tell us about the cultures that
produced them. Catholic art with its resurrections, Last Suppers,
Annunciations, crucifixions and madonnas is a visual history of the
psychology and sociology of Western culture. These very same visual arts
are a historical reference on how Christianity was transmitted and
received at various points of time in history.

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