One of the most familiar, and most beloved, aspects of the Celtic Christian period is the artwork produced in the monastic centers of the 7th-9th centuries. Liturgical dishes and chalices, illuminated manuscripts, and stately carved crosses bear witness to an era in which art flourished in the service of the Gospel.
There was nothing "pop" about Celtic Christian art. It represents a blend of ancient and contemporary styles, crafted together into a narrative abstract art style that was meant to adorn sacred places and objects and to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ and His Kingdom. We only know the names of two of these craftsmen - Muiredach, who carved the high cross at Monasterboice in the 9th centure, and Eadfrith, who both wrote and illustrated the Lindisfarne Gospels at about the same time. Apart from the poets - Sechnall, Columba, Columbanus, and Oengus mac Oengobann, chief among them - all the other painters, calligraphers, carvers, and overseers remain anonymous. They were not paid for their work; they offered it as a sacrifice to the Lord and a resource for teaching a largely illiterate people and helping to lift their minds and hearts for worship.
Art used to play a prominent role in the life and worship of the Church. That's pretty much gone now, except for the pop music that drowns out congregational singing on Sunday mornings and blares indistinctly across Christian radio stations. Celtic artists took captive the art forms of their past and their day and used them to narrate the story of Christ in exalted and exalting terms. Contemporary Christian composers borrow existing pop art forms and use them to drag the Gospel down to the level of the streets.
Will real art ever revive in the churches? It seems like it should, given that we are all creators and hungry for beauty. Art in the service of the Kingdom certainly has the endorsement of Scripture. It simply lacks - apart from Christian pop music - the endorsement of the believing community. Which prompts me to wonder, which gospel do we believe, if not the one in Scripture, which over and over commends the use of serious art to honor God, edify His people, and bear witness to the world?
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