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Realizing the presence, promise, and power of the Kingdom of God.

Art for Community

Participative art.

Irish High Crosses (2)

While society appeared ready to accept the new vision that the great Christian missionaries and their followers were to bring, it had the internal strengths to preserve the essences of the old culture, to incorporate the new teachings into their understanding and to create a new and particular Irish identity.

 - Powell, The High Crosses of Ireland[1]

Then everyone came whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and they brought the LORD’s offering for the work of the tabernacle of meeting, for all its service, and for the holy garments.

 - Exodus 35.21

Celtic Christian art was created by and for a particular community, one whose roots were planted long before Christianity ever arrived in Ireland. Celtic art—standing stones, carved stones, a variety of everyday objects, poems, tales, and songs—was art for people, art for a community. It invited not only observation but participation, engagement with the beauty and themes of the various forms.

We see this carried over into Irish Christian art of the 7th century and beyond. For example, the anonymous painting of Christ enthroned from the medieval Book of Kells includes a feature that one can easily overlook amid the lavish, intricate, and ornate art work that fills that illustrated page.

As described in Scripture, the heavenly throne room of our Lord Jesus Christ is richly adorned with a wide variety of arts: music, fragrances, lavish furnishings, garments and tapestries, singers and musicians, jewels of various kinds. We do not know for certain that this is exactly what heaven looks like, but it’s how God is pleased to have us think about it.

The Scriptures describe Christ’s throne room; the artists of the Celtic Revival sought to represent it visually, using forms and themes inherited from their pre-Christian tradition. The painting of Christ enthroned from the Book of Kells is one of the more glorious of such depictions. It captures the glory and splendor of this heavenly scene in a riot of artistic power.

So it is curious that, over each of Christ’s shoulders is a blank, unadorned panel. Celtic Christian artists filled their artistic surface with intricate drawings of various sorts. But here, two white spaces remain unfinished. Interpreters differ on the meaning of these lacunae. Given that Celtic Christian art was meant to be not only instructive, but also participative, my sense is that these spaces were left blank so that viewers of this scene could, if only in their own minds, add what they thought might contribute to the glory of Christ depicted here. Caught up in the majesty and wonder of this portrait, our imaginations bristle with glorious ideas for contributing to our forebears’ exalted vision of our Lord and Savior.

Christian art in all its forms provides opportunities for us to engage with Christ and those who have glorified Him, so that we too can experience something of the eternal glory of God.

For the art of the Celtic Christian period, this is especially true of the high carved crosses that began to appear throughout Ireland from the 8th century to the 12th. Peter Harbison referred to these crosses as “pictorial Bibles in stone”[2] Picking up on that thought, Elinor D. U. Powell explains that the stone crosses, “by being placed outside the small churches, were available to the illiterate countrymen who came to learn about the sacred stories they portrayed.”[3] One could say that the glory or Christ depicted in the Book of Kells is greatly surpassed on the cross ascribed to Muiredach at Monasterboice. Not only is the carved depiction of Christ as beautifully rendered as in the Book of Kells, but the crowd of people coming to and going away from Jesus, the surrounding circle of stars and planets, and the fact that one must look up to study this image magnifies the sense of Jesus’ exaltation and draws the viewer into the majesty of the scene.

This was art for spiritual formation. Art for a community. Art that Irish Christians could participate in and carry away in their souls to remind and refresh them in the grace of the Lord. Whereas the community of God’s people of Israel in Moses’ day participated in creating the art of the tabernacle and its furnishing, those in the afterglow of the Celtic Revival participated by observing, meditating on, and being instructed by the Irish high crosses and other forms of Celtic Christian art.

Our participation in Christian art these days is largely confined to singing hymns. Singing is perhaps the most readily available form of participative Christian art. But it need not be the only one. The Christian heritage of the arts affords many opportunities to enter more fully into life with Christ through media that appeal to the eye, ear, touch, smell, and taste. The high crosses of Ireland can be especially beneficial for enlarging our vision of Christ and the beauty, power, and majesty of His reign.

For Reflection
1. How does singing hymns or praise songs help you to participate in the rule of King Jesus?

2. Do you have a favorite hymn that brings you more vividly into the Presence of the Lord?

Psalm 27.1-6 (St. Denio: Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise)
LORD, You are our Light and our Savior most dear!
You guard us with might; therefore, whom shall we fear?
Though evil surround us, our enemies fall;
no harm shall confound us when on You we call.

One thing we request but to dwell with You, LORD.
Your beauty to test and to think on Your Word.
In trouble You hide us secure in Your grace;
no foe may o’erride us: We sing of Your praise.

Lord, grant that I may participate in Your Presence today as I…

T. M. Moore

Support for Crosfigell comes from our faithful and generous God, who moves our readers to share financially in our work. If this article was helpful, please give Him thanks and praise.

And please prayerfully consider supporting The Fellowship of Ailbe with your prayers and gifts. You can contribute online, via PayPal or Anedot, or by sending a gift to The Fellowship of Ailbe, 103 Reynolds Lane, West Grove, PA 19390.

All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe Psalter. Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] Powell, p. 4

[2] In Powell, p. xvii

[3] Ibid., p. xviii

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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