Art in Christian Life (2)
All Your garments are scented with myrrh and aloes andcassia,
Out of the ivory palaces, by which they have made You glad. Psalm 45.8
Invitation to glory
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 sorts – all these are described, in one place or another in Scripture, as present with the exalted Christ to honor, delight, and glorify Him. 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 (ca. 430-800 AD) sought to represent it visually. The painting of Christ enthroned from the Book of Kells is one of the more glorious of such depictions.
In the heavenly realm, where saints wait in the presence of Christ and His angels for the new heavens and new earth, the use of the arts abounds. The Book of Kells painting of Christ on His throne captures the glory and splendor of this heavenly scene with artistic power.
So it is curious that, over each of Christ’s shoulders is a blank, unadorned panel. Celtic Christian art is renowned for filling the artistic surface with delicate drawings of various sorts. But here, in perhaps the most famous example of art from the period of the Celtic Revival, two white spaces remain unfinished. Interpreters differ on the meaning of this lacuna. 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.
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 the eternal glory of God.
Varieties of art
Art can both express the glory of God and lead us to experience and participate in that glory. The Scriptures mention many arts that God saw fit to use in advancing His economy among men.
Prominent among these are the arts of song and poetry – as in the psalms, for example – as well as of instrumental music, both popular and liturgical (cf. the superscriptions of many psalms, which suggest a folk or popular tune, and 1 Chron. 25).
The visual arts also are employed in many settings: tapestries, carvings, metal work, painting and sculpture, architecture and design, garments of various kinds. The building of the tabernacle and the temple involved lavish and extensive adornment with various arts; and the City to Come of Revelation 21 is described in terms of rich artistic and architectural beauty.
Sometimes the arts are representational, as when pomegranates, dolphins, palm trees, and other familiar features were carved into the furnishings and paneling of the temple. At other times the arts are more abstract – mere suggestions of beauty in patterns of colors, shapes, or materials. We think of the bejeweled priestly vestments of the Old Testament, and even the heap of stones that gave witness to the unity of the tribes of Israel.
For us and for the divine economy
From cover to cover in Scripture it is quite clear that God intends His economy to go forward among men by wide and varied use of the arts. The arts gave creators opportunities to depict the beauty, immensity, wonder, and goodness of God using everyday items and exotic materials. And because the forms they created were immediately available to all the people, those great works of art could draw people into the experience of God’s glory where, through singing, prayer, and dramatic participation (as in a sacrifice, or the Lord’s Supper), they could express the glory of God as well.
This same potential is available to all believers. The arts can bring us into God’s glory, and allow us to share in and express His glory as we make our contribution to the blank panels of all the arts which await our creative hand. Learn about the arts, especially the great heritage of Christian art. Discover the glory of God in the beauty wrought by those who honored Him with their art. Then share your experience of God’s glory with others.
We must not ignore this great treasury of gifts and abilities that God has deposited among us. We are all creators, all endowed with an aesthetic and artistic sense, all capable of discerning the glory of God in the beauty of a work of art. The songs we sing, the fashions we wear, what we read or write, how we adorn our homes and workplaces, even our conversational style – these are all forms of creativity and, hence, forms of art. They are blank spaces amid the everywhere-present glory of God, where we can participate in that glory in our own ways.
1. Why do you think God chose to use so many different art forms to solidify His relationship with His people?
2. Art can exert formative power on the soul – on what we think, how we feel, and what we value. Can you think of a work of art – literature, sculpture, painting, or music – that has profoundly affected your soul? Explain.
3. The Lord’s Supper is a form of art, a brief drama in which all believers participate, and which allows us to engage and express the glory of God. Explain. What can hinder this God-given art form from realizing its potential to engage us with God’s glory?
Next steps – Conversation: With what forms of art are your Christian friends involved? What do they gain from that involvement? Ask a few of them.
T. M. Moore
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.