Book Review: A Redemptive Theology of Art

David A. Covington is an artist-theologian who is passionate about both music and Christian discipleship. Unfortunately, for quite some time in his life he found these two passions to exist in separate realms, especially within the context of the church. In his search to “live one life rather than two separate ones, one in music and one in theology” (21), he was led later to seminary to study “what the Bible has to say about the power of music, about all beauty, all passions [aesthetics]” (21). He was in search of a way past the long-standing separation of theology and aesthetics—a dichotomy he argues is “unnecessary, even harmful” (49). This book is the result of that search.

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Three Principles of Ecclesiastical Art Production from the Writings of Luther

— by Ted Giese

Art is something that must be perceived. Of course many things in the daily life of the individual are perceivable, but a great deal of things go unnoticed both actively and inactively by the casual observer. There are two kinds of perceivable things in the world: those things touched by human hands and those things that are not. In the case of those things that are touched by human hands, intentionality becomes an essential clue as to the purpose behind their formation, just as Gene Edward Veith suggests in his book Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture, when he states that art “brings abstract philosophies down to earth.” H.W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson in their classic art history textbook History of Art assert that art is the most intentional of humankind's activities, or at least it is the most intentional form of expressing ideas and concepts in nonverbal non-traditional linguistic forms. What has been defined as art has fluctuated over time, and the artisans of one time become the artists of another and vice versa. This is largely due to shifts in social attitudes and tastes.

At the time of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, art was becoming what people generally understand it to be today: drawing, painting, sculpture, and architecture. This Renaissance period that coincided with the Reformation period was a great time of upheaval within Western culture, and some scholars like Erik Erikson believed that Martin Luther had little interest in art at all. This is not true. Luther commented and wrote about art many times, yet he did not give a single list of parameters that one could use in the proper production of ecclesiastical art. For this, one must look more broadly at the writings of Luther and deduce from them useful principles.

When Luther was writing about art, he was writing about architecture, drawings, paintings, and sculptures as they could be found in the secular and religious culture of his time. What is measured as art in our current time has widened considerably to include a vast and varied set of interrelated fields and disciplines far exceeding the confines of drawings, paintings, sculptures, and buildings. Conceptual art, performance art, text-based art, textile art, installation art, earth art, photographic art, cinematic art, time-based art, kinetic art, sound-based art, digital art, printmaking, and assemblage all comprise the current definition, along with drawing, painting, sculpture and architecture. These fields will at times intersect with one another, creating complex relationships and systems.

Luther's writings in no way encompass all of these current fields, yet three essential principles can be taken from Luther's writings when it comes to the production of ecclesiastical art and its proper function in the church.

  1. Christian ecclesiastical art must respect the inerrancy of Scripture, that is the Old and New Testaments contained in the Christian canon, and them alone;
  2. Christian ecclesiastical art is to act as secondary instructional materials in the form of memorials and reminders for the Christian, which is to say it must serve a pedagogical purpose;
  3. Contextual matters are to be taken into consideration when producing ecclesiastical art for the divine service.

These principles will all be examined briefly to give a better understanding of how Luther looked at ecclesiastical art and its proper function in the church.

First, scriptural inerrancy is a key building block of confessional Lutheran thought, second only to Christ himself, for scripture is the infallible word of God and must be respected as such. A great deal of the assurance of the Christian is based on the fact that the scriptures are true and contain no falsehoods or errors. Scriptural inerrancy then becomes the first rule by which Luther discerns art of any kind. If it is in adherence to Scripture, it is good and useful; if it is not, then it is dangerous to faith. Producing ecclesiastical art that is good and faithful can only be accomplished through respect for scriptural inerrancy.

An example of this approach by Luther can be found in his 1539 Lectures on Genesis where Luther notes, concerning contemporary images of the patriarch Abraham's near sacrifice of his son Isaac on mountain of the Lord, that "it was not a sword, and the picture commonly painted of Abraham about to kill his son is incorrect. It was a knife, such as butchers and priests were accustomed to use." (LW 4:110–11). Two very different things are conveyed when the sword of a king is compared and contrasted with the knife of a butcher or an Old Testament priest. The first is a symbol of government and the vocation of the sword, the other is a symbol of the sacrifice, particularly in the case of an Old Testament priest. With the cross of Christ and Jesus' death upon that cross as the center of Scripture and with the account of Abraham and Isaac typologically pointing to the sacrifice of God's only Son, the question can be asked: Which better conveys visually what the text of Scripture teaches? The sword or the knife? Artistic licence in this case can introduce error at worst and theological dissonance at best.

Earlier in 1522 Luther likewise pointed out, in his sermon for the festival of Epiphany, that the common misconception promulgated by artists that there were three Wise Men from the east just because there were three gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh) was in fact incorrect, because Scripture never numbered the wise men (LW 52:160). These examples may seem nitpicky to some, but they show the serious attitude Luther had concerning the inerrancy of Scripture and the potential pitfalls of bearing false witness in ecclesiastical art production. There is also an element of common sense in Luther's statements: if the text of Scripture does not say it, do not make it so in art. To do anything else would be a lie, as well as subversive. If the intent is to produce faithful ecclesiastical art, then hyperbole becomes a dangerous ground upon which to build, even if it is well intentioned or has become traditional. It should be noted that Luther does not specifically insist on scriptural inerrancy, while at the same time it is important to note that Luther singles out as "incorrect" works of ecclesiastical art that do not adhere to scriptural inerrancy.

Second, ecclesiastical art contains a pedagogical purpose in the form of memorials and reminders. While discussing the use and production of personal prayer books (LW 43:43), Luther advocates the daily remembrance of Scripture through imagery in a similar fashion as he advocates the daily remembrance of baptism in his Small Catechism. Scripturally, Luther accepts the use of images, even including crucifixes and images of saints, based on Joshua 24:26 and 1 Samuel 7:12, because examples of ecclesiastical art such as these serve the same function of memorial and witness as is sanctioned in the Old Testament with the proper use of witness stones (LW 40:87).

For Luther, ecclesiastical art was permissible only when it was not the object of worship. Consider the bronze serpent made by Moses in Numbers 21:8–9 under the specific direction of God. It began as a useful object and had a specific pedagogical purpose. It was there to teach the people to trust in God and his promise. When it was being misused later in the time of Hezekiah, Hezekiah destroyed it (2 Ki 18:4) because it was being worshiped (LW 40:87). Between the time of Moses and Hezekiah there was no problem with the bronze serpent because its only function during that time was to serve as a reminder of the grace of God for his afflicted people.

Because of the value of ecclesiastical art as pedagogical, it is necessary at this point to take a short detour into Luther's response to iconoclasm in his time. Luther preferred to avoid the destruction of ecclesiastical art if it did not have to be physically destroyed, or rather he preferred teaching as opposed to hammer, chisel, and torch (LW 40:58). Luther's approach in this regard was much more pastoral. On the one side, the Roman church taught falsely concerning images, claiming that just seeing, and/or praying to, or being in the presences of certain material objects could forgive sin (SA II.23), produce miracles, and be counted as meritorious. On the other side, Luther had the iconoclasts and enthusiasts who wished to strip the world bare of all ecclesiastical art, seeing it as inherently idolatrous. Luther stuck with Scripture and promoted an alternative approach. His main concern was the worship of images, and in his treatise of 1525 "Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments," Luther provides the above discussion concerning the bronze serpent, as well as his philosophy for avoiding idolatry, as he debated the iconoclasm of Karlstadt. He states:

“[I] approach the task of destroying images by first tearing them out of the heart through God's Word and making them worthless and despised. This indeed took place before Dr. Karlstadt ever dreamed of destroying images. For when they are no longer in the heart, they can do no harm when seen with the eyes. But Dr. Karlstadt, who pays no attention to matters of the heart, has reversed the order by removing them from the sight and leaving them in the heart. For he does not preach faith, nor can he preach it; unfortunately, only now do I see that. Which of these two forms destroy images best, I will let each man judge for himself (LW 40:84).”

On the one hand having ecclesiastical art and keeping it present within the worship and devotional life of the Christian provides opportunity for pedagogy. Conversely, on the other hand, the absence of such art will hamper and/or shift pedagogy away from visual learning. The latter was not the intention of Luther. He certainly understood such visual learning as valuable, and made a case that it would be beneficial if images like those printed in his translation of the Bible would find greater uses.

Before leaving this second principle, consider how Luther suggests that such prints as found in books should be painted on walls because, as he puts it, they "do no more harm on walls than in books." He continues saying, “It is better to paint pictures on walls of how God created the world, how Noah built the ark, and whatever other good stories there may be, than to paint shameless worldly things. Yes, would to God that I could persuade the rich and mighty that they would permit the whole Bible to be painted on houses, on the inside and outside, so that all can see it” (LW, 40:99).

Third, ecclesiastical art best serves the church when context is considered. This might best be thought of as a natural refinement coming out of the first two principles. These principles being a deep and careful regard for scriptural inerrancy and the desire to produce works of art which focus themselves as pedagogical reminder and witness.

The question of context for Luther utilizes the most basic form of common sense flowing from the first two principles. Luther gives a very strong opinion concerning this as he writes about the Sacrament of the Altar on the basis of Psalm 111 in 1530:

Whoever is inclined to put pictures on an altar ought to have the Lord's Supper of Christ painted, with these two verses written around in golden letters: ‘The gracious and merciful Lord has instituted a remembrance of His wonderful works.’ Then they would stand before our eyes for our heart to contemplate them, and even our eyes, in reading, would have to thank and praise God. Since the altar is designated for the administration of the sacrament, one could not find a better painting for it. Other pictures of God or Christ can be painted somewhere else. (LW 13:375)

Luther wishes to reinforce the fact that "the Lord is gracious and merciful" (LW 13:373). The trouble comes when individuals approach the Sacrament of the Altar in confusion, when the recipient of the body and blood of Christ is afraid of Jesus, afraid of God the Father because Jesus has been "painted" either with words or presumably with paint, to varying degrees, as angry or displeased in the institution of his sacrament. Luther assures the Christian that "[Jesus] will not devour you or stand over you with a club when you go to the Sacrament" (LW 13:374).

Here we can see how Luther is making the distinction between what is appropriate and what is not, and how an individual piece of art in the wrong place can bear false witness concerning the true teachings of the church. The preceding block quote provides a positive example of how art can be employed to get the right message across to the troubled soul, becoming that proper reminder and witness. When applied, this third principle would suggest quite strongly that there is a proper place for ecclesiastical art.

For example, one would be encouraged to put ecclesiastical art concerning baptism around a baptismal font. In contemporary art theory, this is called site-specific; the fabrication or production of aesthetic elements that interact with the pre-existing environment. This is most common in the field of installation art where a change in the environment is attempted; the success of such a change is largely determined by how seamless the integration of the preexistent merges with the aesthetic additions. The desire is generally one of two things: either to create unease or inquiry by the use of juxtaposition, or to create harmony by the use of common homogeny or winsomely developed homogeny. Luther appears to desire the latter. Juxtaposition is not generally useful in ecclesiastical art unless it serves the first two principles and is contextually appropriate.

To put a finer point on the necessity of context, consider this example. King David is a prominent individual recorded in holy Scripture. It is entirely possible to produce a painting or sculpture of David that would be faithful to the text of Scripture, an image that contained no spurious errors. Such a work of ecclesiastical art could rightly be understood as serving as a witness to the personage of David and his life lived in the grace of God's promise of salvation, yet it would be contextually inappropriate to place such a work of ecclesiastical art predominantly at the altar. Doing so would be an elevation of David over Christ and would then retroactively break the first two principles. The work of art would, because of its placement, teach falsely and if it taught falsely it would subsequently no longer be respectful of Scripture and scriptural inerrancy.

These three principles for the production of ecclesiastical art give the artist and patron/congregation valuable insight into what best constitutes ecclesiastical art how it can be faithfully utilized by the Christian. In the current milieu, the field of art encompasses virtually all elements of Christian worship. As a result, these three principles may be applied more broadly especially when the entirety of the divine service and its physical setting is deemed to be art. Movement, color, gesture, body language, duration of time, fabric, construction materials, tone, structure, sound, music and all the non-verbal elements are perceivable as art. The principles of respect for scriptural inerrancy, pedagogical reminder and witness, and appropriate context can therefore be applied to an individual element or to the whole of the divine service.

Lastly, because of the common sense nature of these three principles, they have been generally applied by Lutherans, but because they have not been presented as principles formally, their use has been subject to variability due in part to shifts in social attitudes and tastes. As a result the Lutheran church in North America, on the congregational level, has often been influenced more by the artistic principles of other denominations and/or by secular artistic movements than it has been by Luther and its own writers and thinkers. Careful consideration of these three principles from the solid footing of Scripture could provide a way forward toward a comprehensive understanding of ecclesiastical art and its proper function in the church.

 

Rev. Ted Giese serves as associate pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina Saskatchewan Canada.


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