Iain McKillop is an artist and art historian; he is also ordained and a regular retreat leader.
In the following article there are a number of references to specific works of art. Links to each one can be found in the endnotes.
As someone who has been studying, practising and writing about art and art-history for decades, I should easily write about ‘Christian Art’, but the theme is as diverse as the arts themselves. Christian art can have several definitions: any art produced by Christians, art with specifically biblical or religious themes, art created according to a Christian worldview or principles. Some art on Christian themes but produced by artists who do not believe might not be considered ‘Christian Art’. Francis Bacon and Picasso’s Crucifixions might be examples. Equally art constructed on unconventional or unorthodox doctrine, or by an artist with a less than perfect Christian life might be considered dubious by some: Caravaggio and Stanley Spencer come to mind, but their art can be moving spiritually. One does not necessarily need to be a Christian to produce art with a profound meaning. By contrast some art found on religious cards, produced by profoundly religious people can sometimes feel simplistic and naïve.
All believers are meant to seek to be effective witnesses to their faith. Yet Christian artists in any medium do not need to produce art specifically based on faith; they may witness through other aspects of their lives. The arts, artists and Christians are so diverse, so different people come to different conclusions as to what they create. Just because I personally spend much time painting specific meditations on my faith does not mean that I expect other Christian artists to do so. Nor would I consider someone who produces art based on religious subjects to be a better Christian or a better Christian artist than one whose art uses secular themes. Most of my Christians friends working in the arts produce secular work; very few work with themes influenced directly by faith.
I remember as a student exploring such topics, sitting at the feet of the wise Dutch Christian art-historian and theorist Hans Rookmaaker. One of our group asked: “Professor, what should we be painting as Christian artists?” He took a few thoughtful sucks on his pipe and responded gently: “You’ve come to me, ‘the great professor’ to consider what Christian artists should create… Of course, I’ve thought over this for years, and I think know what I might be creating if I were an artist. BUT I’M NOT GOING TO TELL YOU!... YOU are the artists; you need to find what YOU should be creating.” That was the wisest advice and guidance to give. Rookmaaker wrote a significant essay “Art Needs no Justification” in which he reiterated his belief that in the arts Christians don’t need to specifically reference their faith; it is enough to create good ‘art’. Does a Christian surgeon stitch up a cut with crosses, or a Christian refuse collector work out the Christian theory of collecting bins? Both are as necessary as art, perhaps more so in their contribution to society. Would one expect a Christian comic to tell just religious jokes? If so, their material might be very limited, even boring!
Part of the mandate of being human is to use the materials of the earth creatively, even sometimes extravagantly or expansively, though as responsible stewards, developing the resources of our minds as well as using our materials wisely. We might want to advance society by creating works to inspire or challenge. I try to do that. But sometimes it is enough just to delight, entertain or create something relaxing: Matisse considered that a painting should be to a viewer “like a good armchair’! 1. Neither does Christian art need to be a great profound statement; some of the best and most moving art is as small and humble as God’s creation of the violet, the butterfly wing, or pollen under the microscope: Consider how Fabritius’ painting ‘The Goldfinch’ 2., e.e. cummings’ poem ‘somewhere i have never travelled’, about love opening him up like a rose 3., or a Chopin Etude can awaken our senses and enhance our sensitivity! Those aren’t Christian works yet they elevate the soul.
A primarily value of art is to communicate through the senses. Experiencing a work of art is not to be confused with true ‘spirituality’ as Christians mean the term, which opens us to communication with the spiritual dimension in our relationship with God. My personal opinion is that a visit to a gallery, play, poetry recital or concert is a ‘sensuous’ experience, rather than a ‘spiritual’ experience, though I recognise that many might disagree. I regard a spiritual experience as being more directly related to a relationship with God through the spiritual world. Works of great religious art like Fra Angelico’s San Marco frescoes 4., Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or George Herbert’s poem ‘Love bade me welcome’ 5., can use the senses to open us to spiritual truth. On a much less competent level, that is what I strive towards in my own art.
One might expect a Christian to be producing art that exhibits certain qualities: I don’t believe that we should waste the earth’s resources, deliberately insult, create false religious propaganda, damage or desecrate the environment, devalue human beings or any creature through what we produce. The Christian graphic designer Philip Miles encouraged keeping to the principles of the Advertising Standards Authority – ‘Legal’, Decent’ ‘Honest’, ‘Truthful’ but added to the list ‘Holy’, since we have spiritual as well as ethical standards to maintain, especially in today’s challenging world. However, sometimes a Christian artist might feel inspired to challenge normal boundaries to make people think. The committedly Christian artist Georges Rouault’s paintings of prostitutes, atrocities of war and representations of suffering society 6. were condemned by his Christian friends and mentors as indecent and ugly, yet he sought to honestly represent inner truths about the human condition. (See my study on Rouault’s art 7.). Messaen’s music often challenges the ear, yet it is charged with emotive religious content and meaning. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ or William Blake’s poetry was once considered worthless, clumsy or naïve by some Christians, including Hopkins’ Jesuit masters, yet we recognise now that the works of both poets contain profound insights. Modern art principles have shown that art does not need to be beautiful or orthodox to inspire. In fact many conventionally beautiful works are shallow, and many ‘ugly’ works can be expressive in ways that challenge us to think of their application: Compare our response to a Raphael Crucifixion 8. and Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece 9.. Both are equally great works of art, but the latter moves one to a more profound spiritual response.
For years I have been trying to write a book exploring the varieties of ideas about ways of using art in prayer, which have been developed in world culture. I am particularly fascinated by: the concept of praying through the imagery of icons; the Dominican theological teaching that influenced Fra Angelico; Carmelite contemplative prayer that inspired the writings of Francisco de Osuna, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila or Luther and Calvin’s various considerations of the value of the arts to inspire faith, despite their recognition of the danger of distracting from the true focus of faith and worship. The Council of Trent and later papal encyclicals encouraged artists to use the power of art to inspire devotion and promote faith, but the ways this could be interpreted were as diverse as Guido Reni, Caravaggio, Graham Sutherland, Eric Gill, David Jones and Christopher Fry. Pietism, the Catholicism of his mother influenced the emotion in Rembrandt, even more than the Protestant culture surrounding him. He is for me the most moving exponent of Christian art 10.. All these demonstrate the diversity of ways in which faith can be enhanced and elevated by works of art. Sometimes it is enough for the artist just to create as part of their private reflection; sometimes we design to uplift others.
The problem of all prayer, devotion and religious art can be where we place our focus. No prayer, worship or contemplation is entirely ‘true’ unless it focuses on God “in Spirit and in truth” (Jn.4:24). In private or public worship one’s focus may be distracted by an artwork, music or activity. We may be distracted from true worship by the surroundings or atmosphere, the charisma of the president, beauty or discomfort in the liturgy, characters in the choir or congregation. Any or all of these can contribute to corporate or individual worship, or turn our worship idolatrously away from God. It is also easy to place too much emphasis on our own feelings or our personal relationship with Christ, rather than focusing our worship towards the wholeness of God, to which Christ opens us.
The human mind, soul and spirit are complex. Some of the most creative discoveries have come through lateral thinking. God’s truths usually communicate through our peripheral senses more than by direct communication. I am often moved by a phrase or idea in a sermon which the preacher did not intend to communicate. Similarly we may pick up atmosphere, feeling or a minor detail in a work of art, which may speak more profoundly than the most well-crafted intention of the artist. One of the main values of studying the arts is the way that they can enhance lateral thinking. Recently I have been studying the foreground plants of Piero della Francesca’s Baptism 11. and Nativity 12. in the National Gallery, and the fruit in Mantegna’s San Zeno Altarpiece 13.. Realising how each symbolically represents an aspect of ‘salvation’ expanded my own appreciation of the meaning of what Christ achieved.
Some of the most communicative Christian art subtly ‘alludes’ to meaning, rather than confronting the viewer dogmatically. Art that promotes Christian thought or devotion is rarely direct or propagandist. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation initially tried to use art as propaganda but found that more subtle art communicated faith more profoundly. Putting a biblical text or Cross on a picture, poster or card does not make it a vehicle for profound religious communication or evangelism. It often trivialises both the image and the text, and can seem naïve.
In recent years several religious writers and preachers have turned to reflecting on works of art to communicate faith. Their interpretations may often be spiritually meaningful and communicate effectively. However, just as in biblical interpretation, spiritual interpreters of art may too often impose their own predetermined ideas on works rather than seeking to understand their true historical and cultural context. Some may feel naïve, simplistic, contrived or false to those more firmly trained in art-history. Sincere preachers would not interpret a Bible text out of context (though many preachers still do!), so we should not do the same with artworks. Of course when we look at, read or experience a work of art we are almost always experiencing it out of the original context in which it was created, especially in works displayed in galleries rather than in the churches or private devotional settings for which they were intended. To truly understand a work it is usually valuable to consider where, when, for whom and why it was painted. The disfigurement of Christ on the Cross in Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece for example, conveys completely different meanings when one recognises that it was created for a chapel of a monastic infirmary where patients were treated for Ergotism, a condition which caused severe nerve agony, internal cramps and physical distortions like those reflected in the distorted body of Christ. The work stops seeming physically ugly and suggests Christ’s intense empathy and identification with suffering humanity: He too experienced pain like the Isenheim patients and us.
Some of the most communicative art about faith, which evokes contemplation and devotion, touches the context in which we live. During the recent Covid-19 pandemic I painted a large series of panels depicting Christ’s Resurrection appearances 14.. It might have seemed more appropriate to paint Jesus’ Passion but the daily news was tragic enough; we did not need more tragedy. Even Grunewald’s Isenheim masterpiece includes a dynamic Resurrection image 15. and other panels and sculptures, which relate to God’s ability to bring healing.
A key to creating the best Christian art is to have something valuable to say and to find contemporary forms that communicate. Too often contemporary artists just want to express themselves, to be innovative and novel for their own sake, to draw attention or push themselves forward, not elevate those who experience their work. The best art considers the audience and their possible response, has a subject worth communicating, a style that communicates, and promotes values designed to enhance the life, environment or thoughts of the viewer. Christian art is not about just representing a subject of faith, and particularly not about ‘preaching’. It represents the truth of human spiritual experience in ways that communicate faith as it really is, with its mysteries, challenges, subtleties, incomprehensibilities and wonders.
1. Matisse quote http://www.henri-matisse.net/quotes.html