Five hundred years ago, the church was one of the largest patrons of art in the Western world. Stroll through some of the churches and city squares in Italy and you’ll see the height of the Rennaisance, flooded with Biblical themes and narratives.
What happened in the past five hundred years that has caused the Church to distance herself from great art? There are and have been plenty of exceptions. There are churches that support the arts, encourage artists, celebrate great art, and explore the vast domains of art in this world. But I’m afraid they’re in the minority.
For some reason, a lot of art has been branded as being worldly, useless, or both. I wonder if this stems from the Puritanical movement during the Enlightenment, when “the age of reason” was dividing the culture between the religious traditionalists and the humanists. Art is such a deep and meaningful aspect of culture that when there is a division in a culture, there is a division in the art – the good art and the bad art.
In today’s Western culture, a good deal of Christians think that good art is only the art that is explicitly and obviously “Christian.” The song needs to talk about God or the visual art needs to show a scene from the Bible (or at least a pastoral landscape with a church in it). Then we call it “Christian music” or “Christian art.”
But I want to argue that God is the ultimate Artist. He is the Creator of all things, and beautifully designed this universe and every plant, animal, and human to His artistic desire. When humans (whether Christian or not) make great art, they are reflecting the Great Artist. This is an example of what some Christians call “common grace.” That is grace that God gives to both believers and non-believers. Since all humans are made in the image of God, even those who don’t believe in Him reflect back His glory. And one way they can do that is through great art. And Christians can learn a lot from art made by non-Christians.
My hope is that as Christians we can create and appreciate art in its many dimensions and expose ourselves to new art every day. In doing so, we learn more about our Maker, the ultimate Artist, and join with others in bringing Him glory.
The painting you see is Thomas Cole’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1928).