Putting Art (Back) In Its Place… A Book in Review

“A visually-oriented culture needs a visually-oriented church if it is to evangelize effectively and to give the congregation a culturally up-to-date experience.” – John E. Skillen

From the beginning, great art has always been inspired by religion and religious ceremonies have been greatly enhanced through worshipful art.  It is a relationship which simply makes sense, since taking the gifts God has given us and offering them back to Him is the very definition of worship.  Strangely enough, however, we have begun to fall away from this union in recent years.  Now, there are those who fear allowing quality art back into the church, fretting that this may draw attention away from God.

In his book, Putting Art (Back) In Its Place, John E. Skillen examines the historical relationship between art and worship and makes a solid case for bringing art and the church together once more.  As a specialist in medieval and Renaissance literature and the director of the Studio for Art, Faith, & History in Orvieto, Italy, the author is uniquely qualified to speak on this subject, particularly when it comes to the great artistic works generated by the Italian masters.  He explains that art and religion have always gone hand in hand, and supporting this relationship will not only allow us to understand art the way it was always intended to be understood, but will allow us to worship the Lord with renewed vigor and freshness as well.

There are three artistic genres which have always played a vital role in worship activities:

Architecture

The author explains that by taking great works of art and placing them into the sterilized museum setting, we have done ourselves a great disservice.  He uses the painting of The Expulsion of Adam and Eve by Masaccio to illustrate this idea.  The painting of Adam and Eve in the garden was originally located in an actual garden chapel.  As congregants entered the chapel they were greeted by Adam and Eve at the height of their innocence, spent time praising the Lord in the midst of paradise, and as they left to enter the outside world once again they were warned by the angel with a flaming sword of the heavy price that we all must pay for disobedience.  The painting was designed to enhance the worship experience, and taken out of this context the work cannot be fully understood as Masaccio intended.  Skillen reminds us that the work of architecture is to “shape the space as experienced by those participating in the activities for which the space was designed.”

Liturgy

When we hear the word liturgy, most of us think of incomprehensible Latin chants.  But the author explains the word as meaning “the work of the people,” explaining the way that entire communities would gather to create worshipful art and celebrate its divine meaning.  He takes us to 1311, when a painter named Duccio di Niccolo painted a large portrait of the Virgin Mary, and the entire town gathered to celebrate.  As the painting was revealed, the people were so moved by the painting that they spent the entire day praying as a community and giving alms to the poor.  This reveals the primary goal of many of the artistic masters – to lead others to worship together. As Skillen puts it, artistic excellence is “a factor in focusing the prayers of those praying, in rendering more fully appropriate the attitude of the one praying or worshipping.  And in this work of art, some artworks can be said to be better or worse than others in instructing, reminding, and inspiring those who behold them.”

Narrative

Finally, the author points out that art has always been narrative in form.  Art tells stories.  And most of the great artworks of the past must be understood not as complete and individual works, but as pieces to a greater puzzle – as just one part of the Greater Story of God and the redeeming work He is accomplishing in our world.  Understanding art in this way will not only allow us to comprehend the art of the past, but to continue using our artistic gifts to open the world’s eyes to the Greatest Story Ever Told – the story of the Gospel.

This volume is an excellent resource for those teaching classes in art appreciation and also for church leaders who long for quality music, architecture, and visual art in their churches once again.  While dealing with topics that are at once historically rich and theologically deep, the book is approachable and easy to read for those with some background in the arts.  As an added bonus, the book also offers access to a website which allows readers to visually see all of the pieces of art being discussed within the text – a wonderful advantage for today’s visually-oriented student.

May we no longer view art as competition to worship, but as a tool God gave us to inspire worship…

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1.  Photo Credit:  “Winchester Cathedral,” by John Butler (www.fineartamerica.com)

2. A copy of this book was provided to the author of this blog in return for a fair review.

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