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What is the relationship between the beauty of God


and the mission of the Church
as expressed in John Pipers stained glass windows?

Introduction: Establishing the background to the research.

The general questions underpinning this piece of research arise out of both theological
and ministerial concerns, and the exploration of these questions is intended to inform my
future ministerial practice. The first deeply theological in character of the two key
questions, is asking: to what degree does beauty in general belong to God? This has
stimulated related questions of whether Gods beauty can be meaningfully explored and
expressed through the visual arts, and the tension between the contingent nature of the visual
arts, finite as it is, and their potential Christian subject matter, Gods beauty that is utterly
other.
The second question ministerial in emphasis is whether the Church has a wellgrounded calling, sometimes neglected, to engage the visual arts both in its worship and
mission to the extent in which it would be at great loss to do otherwise. In other words, could
the visual arts play a significant role in the Churchs desire to worship God and its calling to
be a witness to Gods redemption?
Asking these very large questions has generated the need for a more specific focus in
order to explore such themes as Gods beauty, the mission of the Church and the nature of the
visual arts, with more depth and clarity.

Why John Piper and his stained glass windows?

There are two major reasons for choosing the modern British artist, John Piper (19031992), as the single artist in the task of exploring the underlining questions of this research.
Firstly, he has left a rich artistic legacy that raises questions worth exploring in relation to a
Christian understanding of the role and nature of the visual arts. Secondly, his stained glass
windows express an aesthetic value that is not auxiliary to theological concerns but is
profoundly related to Gods beauty and the mission of the Church.

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Richard Ingrams reports anecdotally a brief conversation John Piper once had with a
tourist who very much appreciated to see in the church stained glass actual scene from the
Bible and did not care for the modern non-representational work. Piper explained that the aim
of the modern artists is not so much to show explicit Biblical scenes as to create a Biblical
atmosphere.1
This is an intriguing statement, not least because it throws light on his subtle sense of
sophistication, but it also shows Pipers artistic instinct of striving to express truth as a whole
(as atmosphere) not simply as a recital of an old story. His art is thus not an instrument of
mere moral inspiration or religious education, but an endeavour of bringing about, so to
speak, something of the true beauty of God; a beauty that makes us more complete by
drawing us closer to God. It is through this artistically created atmosphere that God can
communicate his grace to us embodied beings.
Better known today for his romantic vision of churches and country houses, it is
difficult to consider Pipers works of stained glass without taking into account his other
artistic preoccupations. Therefore, for a better understanding of his artistic language,
references to his painting, etchings, prints, designs and other media will be made, but the
focus will remain on the stained glass windows.
Piper's landscapes, for instance, and works with a natural subject are knowingly
situated in the traditions of landscape painting reaching back to the seventeenth century. This
is important to stress because in the seventeenth century landscape painting was an
expression of religion the veneration of that which is made by the hand of God. By contrast,
in the eighteenth century, the century of Enlightenment, it became an expression of the Cult
of Nature venerating the rules and laws which were being derived and discovered in the
natural world. Piper's approach, as a neo-romantic, of spending long periods of time in order
to understand and express the intrinsic nature of the natural elements in front of him is very
much a development of this long tradition.

The structure of this piece of research:

The first section of this research will be looking to give an account of John Pipers
artistic vision as emerging from his stained glass. More specifically, I will be asking, what are
the themes and ideas, aesthetically and/or theologically, emerging form Pipers work? Is there
1

Richard Ingrams & John Piper, Piper's places: John Piper in England & Wales (London: Chatto & Windus; The
Hogarth Press, 1983), 174.

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a specific Christian vision we could observe or a particular formulation of theological


aesthetics? But more importantly, we must investigate in what sense might have Piper
understood his role in exploring and expressing Gods beauty through his stained glass
windows.
Church stained glass, which Piper so much admired, had exercised a great influence,
playing a formative role initially, on his artistic development. His own stained glass windows
reveal a very complex artist who can express beauty in a rich verity of styles, from figurative
to non-representational, from the sublime of the romantic to the abstract of the modern.
However, it will be necessary to understand the development of Pipers artistic vision on the
backdrop of modern art so much concerned with the abolition of roots2 and the liberties of a
new age in cultural development. Was Pipers love for old churches and forgotten ruins a
betrayal of the modern art revolution that was fought in Paris or Spain? But again the focus
will be kept on his stained glass and the aesthetic vision that emerges through it in order not
to solve such complex a question, but to capture something of the uniqueness of Pipers art.
After having formulated an understanding of Pipers stained glass, I will attempt, in
the second part, to explore the beauty of God in relationship to his aesthetic vision. In other
words, what would it mean for Gods beauty (or something about its nature) to be expressed
through stained glass? Could stained glass be revealingly related to Gods beauty? More
importantly, rather than working with a set definition of Gods beauty, the aim here is to
enquire into possible fresh meanings of Gods beauty as potentially discovered in the artistic
vision of Pipers stained glass. Has Piper attempted, more or less wittingly, to given us a
definition of Gods beauty that can be meaningfully expressed through stained glass? Or, to
put it differently, after having experienced his stained glass, can we venture to define some
aspects of Gods beauty? The hope is to arrive at a robust theological understanding of Gods
beauty that can be expressed through stained glass and a Christian understanding of the role
of the aesthetics both in Church and society.
The third part is concerned with the relationship between Pipers aesthetic vision and
the mission of the Church and how the idea of Gods beauty may come into play in a
ministerial sense. This part will give an answer to the title question of this research, that is,
the relationship between the beauty of God and the mission of the Church as expressed in
John Pipers stained glass windows. However, it will be important to see whether, and in
what sense, visual art, especially stained glass, makes a significant contribution to the mission
2

Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John
Piper (London: Thames & Hudson, 2010), 11.

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of the Church and honour Gods beauty. The challenge here is to show whether Piper thought
of his work as a quest for expressing Gods beauty, or simply as a means of enabling the
Church in its exploration of Gods beauty.
Moving away from a strictly functional understanding of the visual art as an
educational tool, it will be important to see in what sense we could talk about a sacramental
aspect in Pipers stained glass. Here I take the meaning Michael Day gives, in his
examination of Modern Art in English Churches, to a religious work of art, that is,

one that draws the onlooker, as well as the artist, to contemplate something which is
beyond the work of art itself, something which many people call God. For the
traditional Christian this will mean the mystery of God the Holy Trinity, very little to
do with high thoughts in dim places but a mystery which has with the new order of
reality brought about by Christ and active in the sacramental life of the Church. 3

It is this understanding of the intriguing nature of the arts, put at our disposal, which God can
use as a medium of revelation, that has made Pipers stained glass a good candidate for this
research. Of course here the medium of revelation partakes in some sense of the revelation,
and it is not a simple means to an end.
We have also moved away from a, more or less, puritan worry about the nature of the
aesthetics, which has been at times a strong characteristic of Protestant attitude regarding the
making of art as concerned with the pleasure principle of the dilatant, or as means of
perversion and idolatry. Therefore, more interesting themes such as embodiment, the value of
art in itself, and issues in aesthetic experiences could be explored in relation to Pipers
artistic vision and the mission of the Church. If the medium of stained glass, as demonstrated
by Piper, is a meaningful way of expressing Gods beauty, could we then talk about a
ministerial dimension of the visual arts per se?
Finally, this research will conclude by considering the significance of any ministerial
insights and outcomes in a parish setting. As an exercise for exploring the connection
between Pipers stained glass windows and the mission of the Church, this research will
make use, to some extent, of some of the five marks of mission as expressed by the Anglican
Communion. Given that the mission of the Church bears a variety of forms, it will be

Michael Day, Modern art in English churches (London: Mowbray, 1984), xi.

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important to look at ways in which visual art can make a significant contribution to the
Churchs calling to Missio Dei.
Other significant questions for the mission of the Church would be to ask whether
beauty, as conveyed through the visual art of stained glass, could become a means of
encountering with God. In what sense is the visual art of stained glass a means of grace and
healing, for instance, or to what extent can stained glass enable a local church in its sharing of
the Gospel?
Therefore, some of the implications of this research will be to show, more generally,
that the Churchs involvement with the visual arts should come from both its sharing into
Gods beauty and the Churchs calling to be visible. In this sense, the Church does not use the
visual arts as a vehicle for marketing its ideology. The artefacts are integrated in the Churchs
worship and mission. The making of something beautiful for God can be both worship and
mission.
Overall, this research is hoping to show that the practices of the visual arts, as
expressed in John Piper stained glass windows, should be part of the Churchs very vocation
to share in Gods beauty here on earth; practices which can shape, inform and help the
Church in its mission. I also hope that this research will deepen my personal understanding of
a theology of aesthetics, which has seen an important revival of interest in the 20th century,
and provide a better appreciation of expressing Gods beauty through the visual arts as a
significant aspect for the mission of the Church. Hopefully, we will discover in Pipers work
a theology of beauty, which affirms the Churchs vocation of searching for and expressing
Gods beauty, and which can promote the idea that stained glass can act as a medium of
divine disclosure.

Other preliminary considerations:

A brief note on clarifying a few terms is necessary here. Considering the context in
which this research is being conducted, the operative tradition is mainly that of Anglicanism,
and Protestant in general. The use of term Church itself can be sometimes confusing.
Therefore, by spelling Church with a capital letter it refers to the Church as a whole, that is,
the institution (the Church of England) and implicitly the theological reality that may include
other Christian traditions. When spelt with a lowercase letter, church refers to specific
churches mentioned for their examples of stained glass windows.