A half century of damage control: the theology of art

It really is a wonder that I have the interest in art and literature that I do. I didn’t grow up in anything that could possibly be considered an arts background. The fundamentalist South isn’t exactly a breeding ground for such people. Sure everyone took “art” classes in school, but like most subjects that are forced upon children, my inability to color in the lines or do what was asked only led to my resentment of the thing. Art became a thing I saw as a waste of time since it didn’t lead to a fancy job and didn’t have some sort of an equation or scientific method that could be applied to it for the purpose of determining if a painting or sculpture was “good” or “bad”.

Fast-forward a decade and now I can spend hours in an art museum. However, like a person trying to teach himself how to read words, my interpretation of a painting is limited to what I know, and what I know how to do is detect symbol and allegory. That eliminates a multitude of genres of art from my level of appreciation, but one genre in which there is no shortage of opportunity for such methods is Christian Renaissance art. And there’s a lot of bad theology in Christian Renaissance art.

I have a theory (“oh wow, how shocking, Chase has a theory”), and I want to preface it by saying that I don’t just make outlandish claims just for the sake of levity. That being said, I’ve seen enough Christian Renaissance art to say that these paintings from the 17th century have caused are a cause of damage to the Gospel that can be traced to this very day.

In my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to see a lot of things. Aside from the Houston Fine Arts Museum and the New York Metropolitan Art Museum, I’ve been able to see various forms of Christian architecture, paintings, sculptures, and monuments in 5 different European countries over the last month. While Christianity is surging in China and Africa, it has been stifled in Europe (especially the Mediterranean area), and all signs point towards this trend continuing into the future. How is it that in the oases where early Christianity took its first roots have now become deserts? After having a look around, a part (certainly not the whole) answer seems clear: the ancient Christians made the mysteries of God tangible.

“Well yeah Chase, that was the whole point of Jesus becoming a man. God wanted to make Himself tangible to us.”

Absolutely. It’s imperative that the completely man-ness of Jesus be remembered and accepted by all believers. However, in our laziness and lack of faith, mankind started making God’s ultimate terms (terms that have no physical entity) into positive terms (terms that “have a face”). For example, if you were to ask people to point you to where the church is, they’d show you to a physical building. If you were to ask the earliest believers where the church is, they’d tell you that you’re looking at it. The church was THEM. It had no physical location! Wherever a group of believers was gathered, that’s where the church was. I mean how could it make any sense when Ephesians 5 says that Christ is the head of the church (singular) if the church was literal, physical place? How incredibly limiting would that be?

I’ve seen so much isegetical painting that it’s sickening. I don’t know if the term “isegetical painting” is a thing, but if it isn’t, I’m trademarking it. What I mean by that is countless Renaissance era artists, most of who were Western Europeans, decided they were going to create the events of the Bible within their own cultural context, a context in which the Roman Catholic church had made Jesus out to be a white, upper-class, good-looking, European guy. I don’t want to go on a Roman Catholicism rant right now (ROMAN Catholicism, not Catholicism. And yes, they’re different.), but I want to make something explicitly clear:

Ahem…

JESUS OF NAZARETH WAS A POOR, HOMELESS MAN WHO RECRUITED A BUNCH OF HIGH SCHOOL DROPOUT YOUNG ADULTS TO BE HIS KEY REPRESENTATIVES.

I mean for God’s sake (literally) people, if you need to make this more modern for you to understand, picture the homeless man on the nearest street corner leading a couple hundred fast food workers to starting the largest movement in the history of the world. THAT’S THE GOSPEL!!!! You don’t get to make your own. As an example, here’s a painting I laughed at as I passed it in The National Gallery in London:

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
Christ healing of the Paralytics at the Pool of Bethesda

IMG_0544[1]

 

christ-healing-the-paralytic-at-the-pool-of-bethesda-murillo

This is your typical “prom hair Jesus” portrayal in which Jesus looks like a Greek god with pale skin (implying royalty) and long, flowing hair. The prophet Isaiah says something quite different:

…his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind… (Isaiah 52:14)

This attractive reputation of Jesus has been so widely used that it hasn’t been until the modern day that movie or art portrayals started showing how Jesus was, y’know, ARABIC. But that’s nearly half a century in which a bunch of artists from the Renaissance era made Jesus out to be just another clergyman who was too good for the poor, sick, widow, and orphan. I mean, just look at the clothing Jesus and His disciples wear in the in the painting. There were only two ways purple fabric could be attained in Jesus’s day, and both were extremely expensive. So a carpenter’s son from a small town with no profession would be the last person to wear anything purple.

“I mean I guess, but it’s just a color. Isn’t this a bit of an overreaction?”

As I said in the beginning, there was a time in which I would’ve thought the same exact thing, but thinking about your own mind for a moment. The moment your ears hear or your eyes read/see a positive term, there is a separate sensory response that happens, whether consciously or subconsciously. For example, if you see an apple pie in the grocery store, your brain instantly brings to mind something like the smell of an apple pie after it’s been baked or maybe even a specific memory involving apple pie. Likewise, when the name “Jesus” is read or heard by the average person, they likely think of a Renaissance painting they’ve seen in which Jesus is white with shampoo commercial hair and clean-looking fabric for clothing. With that in mind, can you really blame someone for thinking Christians are weird for thinking so highly of a guy who, in their subconscious mind, just looks like an ancient Greek philosopher? God went out of His way to make sure we understood that salvation through His Son is for ALL people. Here’s how Paul puts it:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Would the Jesus who wears purple clothes with flowing hair followed by a bunch of other well-dressed, well-groomed guys die the most humiliating death Roman culture had to offer? Certainly not.

I’ve belabored this point enough I’m sure, but it really is something that frustrates me to no end. And these kinds of paintings are endless! Thus, as I walked through the National Gallery and saw the below painting, I got incredibly excited.

Peter Paul Rubens
The Conversion of Saint Bavo

IMG_0546[1]

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

There’s lots happening in this, so here’s the provided description for this piece:

Renouncing his life as a soldier, Bavo, wearing a read cloak, enters the church. He is received by Saint Floribert (bending forward), abbot of the Benedictine monastery, and Saint Amand, who converted Bavo. Rubens has delighted in showing Saint Bavo’s wealth being distributed to the poor.

Wow. WOW. Praise God. I could discuss how the first response to the Gospel by one of the early church Christians (600s AD) was to quit his lifelong profession as a soldier, but that discussion requires much more attention and words. At the very least, how beautiful is it that a member of high society was so awestruck by the Gospel that he couldn’t think of anything but to quit his job and sell all his possessions (the anti-rich man from Matt. 10:17-31)? Forget the community, how about Bavo’s men gathered behind him?! These guys no doubt had been wholeheartedly serving Bavo and had immense respect for him. Bavo hailed from a Belgian noble family with an easy life in the past and for the future, yet here he is throwing away all status, power, respect, and wealth to serve a dead foreign man. I had never heard of this man before, but just imagining the complete shock that spread through that community in the painting put a stupid looking grin on my face as I stood by myself looking this neglected painting. It is a beautiful gathering of the people God selected to be part of his united body. THIS is the Gospel!

Hope you got something out of my ramblings.

Thanks as always.

Chase

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