The Ministry of Recovering Visual Art in the Church

Featuring Branon Dempsey Posted on March 6, 2008

It happened at the beginning of the 16th century. The Catholic church was based upon the bureaucratic structure of the Holy Roman Empire. The system was externally powerful, but internally corrupt. Reform of the church was called between 1215 and 1545. Nine church councils were placed to hold reform, but inevitably the churches failed to reach significant accord. The clergy was unable to conduct themselves according to church doctrine.  As a continuation, the abuse of church ceremonies and practices persist today. In the first half of the 16th century, Western Europe experienced changes in social, artistic and geo-political changes, which collided with the Catholic church. This conflict is called the Protestant Reformation and its response is the Counter Reformation. The Reformation severed Europe into two bodies, the northern territory of Protestants and the southern territory Catholics.  Ultimately, the functions of the church and roles of worship were susceptible to casualities. Art in the church suffered extensive damage and division among places of worship. Through the centuries, the ripple effect swept across the European borders to a worldwide epidemic controversy of art aesthetics in light of church politics. What aftershocks were felt in the western church? What reverberations are still felt today?

From the discoveries of literature, music, science and the visual arts of early Renaissance, Protestants sought grounds to call church reform. From history, Protestant churches removed visual arts in the church by the invasion of iconoclasm. Stained glass windows, icons, images, paintings, symbols and musical instruments were destroyed in the Catholic churches. The Protestants perceived the Catholic images and sounds as a moral dilution of the faith. In response to iconoclasm, the Catholic church produced more elaborate baroque artistry. The exuberant style of art and architecture was the ideological opposition to Protestant beliefs. The dramatic designs and extravagant artistry of Saint Peter's and the Gesu' in Rome reflected the belief and heritage of the Catholic church, while the northern Protestants constructed conservative, black and white architecture that symbolized reform.

Along with Reformers, some Catholics were also divided among themselves over the practice of selling indulgences. Indulgences, were crafted sacred images that were sold in the Catholic church. The seller assured the buyer's remission of sins and to guarantee a shorter period in purgatory. During this immoral outbreak, Martin Luther, a law student and parish priest, revolted against the practice of selling indulgences. He composed a list called, "Ninety-Five Theses," which demanded the resolution and change of selling indulgences. This document was a reaction to the building fund in 1517 for the construction of Saint Peter's in Rome. Luther was condemned by Pope Leo X because of his treason to the Catholic church. He was sought after, which forced him to live in hiding for a year. Later, the printing press gave Luther a voice to spread his views all over Europe, which gained enormous support.

The political sweep of the Reformation greatly impacted Christian worship because the church was very much tied to governmental control. Early church leaders declared that the supremacy of God's Word instituted the role of the church. The campaign for Reform emphasized on national control of finances rather than the Roman government, permission for clergy to marry and the reform for all church sacraments. Once the Reformation began, it rendered the people a means of social empowerment. Later in 1555, The Peace of Augsburg temporarily reconciles both Protestant north and the Catholic south in Germany, while the conflict moves westward towards Spain and France. The Council of Trent is called to resolve doctrinal and clergy issues to formalize and safeguard the orthodox faith. In the second half of the 16th century, the theological and political conflict breeds animosity between reformers. After the death of Luther and Calvin, Protestants have split into a number of sectarian churches. Throughout the warfare, art had suffered an undesirable neglect, now its concerns rise for its survival in the church.

By the new cultural standards of southern Germany, the Reformation greatly shaped the art of music in congregational worship. Among reformers, Luther retained much of the Catholic liturgy in church services, but changed the environment of worship. In most cases, the original Latin texts were retained and others were translated into German, resulting in the makings of contrafacta. He employed a good amount of Catholic traditional music in plainsong and polyphony, while incorporating a new freshness of style. He was a singer, composer, hymn writer and great admirer of Franco-Flemish polyphony. By this time in history, innovative Flemish influences already invaded Germany through artists such as Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin, der Weyden, Rembrandt and Albert Durer and composers such as Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin des Prez, Giovanni Palestrina and J.S. Bach. The central position of music in the Lutheran church reflected Luther's biblical convictions both lyrically and musically.

One of Luther's largest contributions to church music was the chorale, which later was enhanced by Bach, Hadyn, Mozart, Beethoveen and many other contemporaries. Most people today know chorales as hymns or four part harmonized settings, but the chorale, like plainsong was consisted of text and tune. Large instrumental works accompanied chorales by a congrument of instrument doublings coinciding with counterpunctal figured bass. In later church music, Lutherans largely grew out of chorales, as did Catholics outgrowing plainsong. The later works became re-inventions, composed of old chant melodies with new spiritualized texts called contrafactas and motets. These re-inventions along with earlier recitatives were later used as a springboard in the developments of Lutheran cantatas and passions. Teleman, Schutz, Handel and Bach were the greatest originators and innovators of Passions. These musical settings were poetic meditations on Christ's crucifixion. Plainsong melodies emulated the sufferings of Christ according to the Gospel accounts. In a passion service, one priest would sing narrative portions, another the words of Christ and a third the words of the crowd in polyphonic portions of motet style. The works of passions also influenced Catholics for their church services and masses. Passions also set the pretext and origins of 16th and 17th century musicals known as operas.

New and modified instruments of strings, brass, percussion and organ were also developed and utilized in orchestras for church services. No other time in history has music possessed an exhilarating progression and enthusiasm other than the Pre and Post Reformation era.The fresh 15th century ideas of musical instruments and music theory were explored and redefined to form new sounds and styles which pointed toward the Neoclassic era. The father of music theory himself, J.S. Bach, quickly implemented the new developments of music in the church. Protestants such as Luther and Bach capitalized on the new wealth of musical ideas for God's use and glory in the church. Richard Viladesau, in his book, "Theology and The Arts," the author comments on Luther's contributions to church music. The writer says:

"Thus the positive evaluation of music in the church was founded on the idea that the music we hear on earth gives us a sensible taste of the spiritual order and finality of all being and, in its truest nature, expresses of all desire for God. Luther's hearty congregational singing and ethereal choral music of the masses of Palestrina or Victoria are based upon the same idea: that music raises the mind to God because it reflects and expresses the beautiful order and intelligibility of creation itself,"(p. 36 and 37).

Even in the war of the Reformation, both Protestants and Catholics share musical and art styles. Art in itself is a universal language that speaks of relativity and intellect to the understanding of people. Expressionism is a tool for communication through the vehicle of art. Communication is a venue to depict thought, which produces learning and meaning. Luther gravitated to all forms of art both musically and visually. He perceived that both the music and visual arts go hand in hand. God is the Creator of art for His own glory and pleasure as man delights in glorifying Him through the created venues. Luther justifies the use of visual art in worship by the New Testament "grace through faith," theology. He believed that if one is freely justified by faith, he can freely use images to teach and demonstrate the faith. On the contrary, one who is not free in Christ, the images will not be meaningful or helpful to the one that is faithless.

The golden age of Lutheran music lasted from 1650 to 1750. However, the reformers had their own splits within Protestant church. Two conflicting tendencies inevitably affected church music compositions. The Orthodox party held to dogma and public institutional forms of worship, favoring all forms of choral and instrumental resources. Opposed to Orthodoxy, the widespread movement known as Pietism emphasized the freedom of the individual believer. Pietists despised formality and high art in worship, they preferred music of simpler nature that expressed personal devotion.  Again, not all reformers embraced music and the visual arts to be utilized to their fullest potential.

John Calvin and other leaders of the Protestant sects, opposed certain elements of Catholic liturgy and ceremonial much more strongly than Luther did. They distrusted the allure of art in worship services and prohibited singing of texts not found in the Bible. As a response, Calvinist churches did contribute their own modification of church music.They used Psalters to translate text from the Book of Psalms and arranged words to rhyme and meter phrases to newly composed or traditional plainchant tunes. Calvin obtained the idea from French Psalters like Clement Marot and Theodore de Beze, who composed unaccompanied, unison vocal music. Calvin did use the chorale idea from Luther, for congregational singing in worship, although he did not use instruments for worship and for vocal accompaniment. In fact, John Calvin, when missioning to the Middle East, rid the people of instruments that were brought over by the British missionaries. He argued that the sounds of the instruments had a negative persona in worship – a mere distraction from the Word. It was also said that the organ was from the Devil, or at least it possessed demonic qualities because of its unforgiving tuning and intonations. Calvin came to the eastern part of the world with a western ear and could appreciate the new sounds he heard. Specifically, the eastern world of music has a tuning system that is few degrees - nanoseconds off from a western tuning system. Calvin was more caught off-guard from the unpleasing and unfamiliar sounds, Eastern tuning, rather than the represented instruments.

Overall, Calvin's argument was not so much of the instruments themselves, but their place and role in the view of the supremacy of the Word. By a far comparison, Calvin did not agree with the same views as Luther concerning both theology and the role of art in the church. Calvin's role of music in the church continued to discourage musical elaborations. Psalter tunes were seldom expanded into larger forms of vocal and instrumental music unlike the Lutheran chorales.  On the one hand, Calvin affirms the value of music.  On the other, he agrees with St. Augustine in insisting on its subordination to the Word. Augustine states that music is a mind and heart issue that must be pleasing to God. He argued if music became too pleasing to the human ear, the focus on God would shift to a focus on self. Calvin, did not compromise this philosophy concerning thoughts over feelings, in recognizing God's authority. He did value music but only in the limited sense, while rendering attention to the primacy of the Word. Today, Calvinist churches continue four-part congregational singing, mainly in accapella form. Some of the most beautiful choral styles are utilized in these churches. Calvin too, left his fingerprint on the arts through music and theology. He also supported a theological sense of utilizing architecture in a similar way of using music. Again, Calvin preferred to maintain focus and attention on the Creator rather than what man created.

Through the innovations of art, which propelled the Reformation, all forms of music, architecture, and the visual arts depended on one another. All art hinges and operates together involving many members for the productivity of the body itself, similar to the church, which is the Body of Christ. Non-literary art in the Christian tradition such as pictures, images and icons were used similar to music, in depicting liturgy and biblical text. One example is found in the role and controversy of pictorial art, dating back to Gregory the Great.

European and Western cultures were influenced by the Catholic Church in using pictorial art. The priests relied on stained glass, murals, paintings, icons and symbols for Gospel teachings before the age of the printing press. However, like the controversy in church music, opposers of images denounced visual art because man's focus can shift away from God. The irony found in this opposition, is the reality that the Word of God, either read, sung or heard produces mental pictures and thoughts in the mind. The very reason why Jesus used parables was to communicate Biblical truth through the illustration of images, characters and scenarios. Jesus also used objects like fishing nets, currency, plants, pottery, inscriptions, food and wine to communicate God's teachings. These mental images and pictures pointed nothing but to the reality of God. As a benefit, listeners and learners had a clearer perspective on God himself. The Catholic priests were not doing anything different in providing images to illustrate the teachings of God. The difference that opposers argued was the fear of man perverting the use of images to serve or worship them.

While restating the biblical and patristic admonition against the worship of images, Gregory the Great rejected the iconoclastic conclusion that images should be banished from the church. He supports that images play an important role in communicating the Christian message.Gregory described how elements of education and communication frame the purpose for art. He argued that the ignorant see what they should imitate and the illiterate can understand pictures in the place of reading. Calvin opposed these views of Gregory, as well as the use of images in the church. Furthermore, Calvin viewed that paintings and images were mere teachings for the unintelligent. From this perspective, he is right on the money. The uneducated have only pictures to grasp meaning because of their inability to read. However, there is a greater value that Calvin neglected to invest. In the book, "Visual Faith," by Dr. William A. Dyrness, the author explores the philosophical reasoning behind Calvin's dislike and theory of images. Dyrness writes:

"…to the contrary Calvin noted, "Whatever men learn of God in images is futile, indeed false, the prophets totally condemn the notion that images stand in the place of books." By contrast, it is through the pure preaching of the Word that one comes to proper faith. "In the preaching of his Word and sacred mysteries [God] has bidden that a common doctrine be there set forth for all…What is doctrine? It is the pure preaching of the Word of Scripture. Calvin stated, "Christ is depicted before our eyes as crucified. . . . From this one fact they could have learned more than from a thousand crosses of wood and stone."(Dyrness, p.52-53)

Dyrness points out that Calvin was not suggesting to replace one image for another, but is saying that there is a clearer grasp of what is true rather than the use of images. However, the author argues that images do present value and meaning than words alone. In agreement with Dyrness, and taking a step further, images are like words, creating mental pictures, which derive meaning. In Calvin's statement above, he contradicted his own philosophy, in comparing words versus images. In making the reference of Christ's cruxificion, Calvin had to draw imagery in making his point clear, using the phrase, "Christ is depicted before our eyes as crucified. . ." (Dyrness p.53). The word "depicted," is a visual term used to illustrate a thought – an allegory. The terminology Calvin used to describe Christ's death are words that imprint a mental image. Communication of thought through images is the essence of art itself. What is the difference on how communication enters through the eyes ears or senses, when they already produce images in the mind for coherent thought.

To comment on Calvin's view about the visual arts, pictures as the books for the uneducated is ironic. The irony involved is the fact that his followers were once uneducated (as well as all people), before coming to the faith. No matter what the age, no person born from the womb holds a degree in literacy. Did Calvin and his followers not have to learn how to read before studying doctrine and theology? Are not images used in education to teach literacy? Where is the fine-line between words and pictures? How are words different from pictures in the mind's eye of the visual learner? Then are we to say that visual learners are less of a people compared to the thinkers? If this is true, we have a heart problem among believers needing surgery of this sinful and prejudice cancer. How can we effectively share the antidote of Christ's love to a hurting world, when argue about what is the best looking exit door of the hospital? In conclusion, the Great Physician will use and bless the humble, while He humbles the exalted ones.

We have a worldwide classroom waiting to have the artwork of Christ unveiled. What better resource is there other than education through the arts? One can only teach by first becoming a student and a person who learns from their own ignorance, acquires a greater lesson learned. The Bible says in Proverbs 3:13, "Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gains understanding." Why is it that a man who is educated, would withhold wisdom from another, if it was not for personal gain? An allegory of this dilemma can be attributed to a person finding a cure to the world's most threatening disease. Instead of sharing the remedy to the sick on their deathbed, the evil one keeps it for himself. The conclusion is that the cure finder is the sicker individual, even more than the disease itself. 1 John 3:17 states our accountability, "But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?" Ultimately, we commit the same crime by disregarding man's basic need for love, care, nourishment and education, which are essential for life.

Teaching the arts stems from one's understanding for the purpose of the arts. The fruit of that growth is handed out to be hammered, chiseled, shaped, framed, stretched and painted onto the canvas or manuscript of the person's mind. Thus, teaching is an art all of its own. As seen, art is an expressive tool for communication and teaching. From Genesis chapter 1, no one else can fashion their own hands to invent and design the art of life, like the Hands of the Creator. Scripture says in Psalm 95:5, "The sea is His, for He made it; and His hands formed the dry land."The New Testament clarifies His uniqueness, "All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made," (John 1:3). God teaches us through His creation.The gift of learning is God's motive to create. God teaches man about Himself for the purpose of man knowing God thoroughly and intimately. As an outflow cyclic pattern, teaching others is rendering the same gift that we've received. If this is true, when we reject educating people, we deny the gift of knowledge for man to know God. This explains Jesus' anger of the Pharisees, whom would rather be filled with intellect and prosperity. Instead of using their talents to reach the dying people of Israel, Jesus called these men, "…full of dead men's bones…," (John 23:27) and again, "Even so outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." (23:28) Jesus was addressing those who possessed talents, that neglected those who were in need. So many people in life lack education, inspiration and care because of the ones withholding precious wisdom.


In examining the pictorial role of art in the church, many of the great artists communicated dramatic pictures of the Bible, that were primarily used in the Catholic Church. In the 16th century, the artwork of Domenikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco, who began painting icons in Venice. Later in the spiritual development of his life, he painted beautiful piece called, "Resurrection," which depicted Christ's ascension. His paintings are compositions involving upward movements of light, representing the outer work of Christ's resurrection with the implication of the inner work of the Spirit.  Peter Paul Rubens, who worked for Duke of Mantua in Rome, painted his first great commissions, "Raising of the Cross," and "Decent from the Cross," in 1614. His artistry emphasized the stress and strain of the executioners positioning Jesus on the cross, as Jesus looks up trustfully to the Father before sacrificing His life. The "Decent from the Cross," illustrates the complete abandonment and death of Jesus.  Blood stained bars of his instrumental torture are lowered to a woeful world of darkness, while the women look upward in faith, they eagerly anticipate His resurrection. Rembrant van Rijn in 1668, painted his most depth centered work, "Return of the Prodigal Son." The painting of reconciliation, personifies unguarded compassion and the receiving of the dusted, lost but unforgotten son, in the protective arms of his father. These images spoke to the people of the 16th century in ways that moved their hearts and thoughts to God. Like today, many images and graphics produce feelings that God can use in his ceaseless longing and action to draw us near to himself. Images are the manifestations of the soul. These beautiful expressions ministered to the prodigals and the fathers of Rembrant's time. As mentioned earlier about the opposers of the visual arts, how horrible, for man to destroy such a ministry for the sake of claiming to be "right," or "aesthetically holy." What kind of misery did people face, when witnessing the once beheld, broken relics of art that inspired them of God's love and compassion? This can be attributed to someone shattering the mercy stained windows of a contrite soul, whose only ambition in life was to serve and worship God as their life's duty.

Architecture during the Reformation made its many innovations, reflecting the cognitive and intellectual state of mind in worship. The Puritans of America in the 1600's were impacted by church art, but used it more conservatively for the enhancement for preaching of the Word. Their designs of artistry manifested in the presentations of the first Puritan church buildings, known as "Meeting Houses." Similar to Calvinist churches, these houses were simple in construction and style to maintain the importance of theology and teaching. The visual arts were scarcely used in the church by the influence of Jonathan Edwards, who thought that imagination and creativity were the works of Satan. During the Reformation, wood was primary building material for churches. The carpenters used wood and other raw materials to retain the idea of simplicity of the Word. By the end of the 17th century, churches took on a cross-shaped design, which became a popular building icon. Architects and builders were influenced again by their own cultural heritage in designing churches as nostalgic works of art. Rectangular sanctuaries, raised ceilings, wooden domes, foundation structures and floor plans resembled the cultural roots of Renaissance and Baroque eras. Bell towers, pitched roofs and steeples were also developed and architectural form reached its peak by the 18th century. Protestants attributed special meaning and significance to their architecture for the purpose of worship. Wooden pulpits and altars were crafted in plain and conservative designs, they reflected the study of doctrine. A contrasting effect took place during this time as seen in the early days of the Reformation. When stained glass, icons, symbols and paintings influenced and enhanced the senses of worship is now replaced by natural earthly elements of wood and stone. These replaced elements suggest cognitive and intellectual thoughts of God rather than feelings and emotions of worship.

When we study creation to incarnation, many of God's attributes are seen. In the world alone we can clearly see the great artist's work on the leaves of trees, trembling of mountains, raging of the seas, mysteries of creatures and most of all, God extending life to man through the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Throughout the Bible, these images are projected to our minds and captured on our hearts. How beautiful of God is it, to inspire frail and finite hands of man, to illustrate formations of grace, colors of passion and textures of mercy, about His unending love for mankind. As beautiful as the visual arts are on earth, they cannot compare to the beautiful array of heaven and the presence of the Trinity – God himself, whom we will witness and worship for eternity.

God created the arts like a light in the darkness, which ignites and brightens our understanding about Him. Art in its rightful sense is God's beautiful gift to communicate to the world about who He is.  Most of all, He is glorified through the story. Without music and the visual arts to communicate both emotion and thought, we silence the praise of God's created glory. We have uncountable venues to use in reaching a lost world and teaching a changing culture. Realistically, people have become like the Dead Sea, precious life flowing in and nothing flowing out. Art is one of the estuaries in the church that is restricted and blocked off. When we shut out a world due to our own unwillingness to reach people, we miss the value and experience that the New Testament teaches, being all things to all people by all means to save some," (1 Cor. 9:22). John Piper, in his book, "Desiring God," focuses on the value of enjoying God from our understanding of Him.  As noted, God has given us all things to communicate His fathomless truth.  Piper writes, "If people cannot be saved without hearing and believing the gospel of Jesus Christ, how can God be just to condemn people who have no access to the gospel because they live among peoples who have never been reached with the gospel." (p.354, paragraph 9.2  )This is a far stretch of a point to connect with Piper's meaning, but the merit is the statement of people not having access to the Gospel.  The visual and all forms of art is an access for people to learn about God.

The sacredness of art in the church needs to be recovered, reconditioned and expressed. How can we learn from the historical events of the Reformation era on church art for today's use? Education and demonstration which can assist art back into the church.  Implementing this process is not as easy. Before we can help man comprehend with the mind, we need to get to the heart. It is getting behind the understanding of the role of art and the reasons why God created it, that can give a person insight and inspiration.  From inspiration to understanding, from understanding to appreciation, from appreciation to implementation, is an educating process of time. People need to be met where they are in their own understanding, before you can bring them to another level.  Once that permission and acceptance is granted, then people are more inclined to listen and participate. Whether if the person agrees or not to use art in the church, is not the challenge, that issue has enough bruises. The challenge is how can we learn, teach and use other venues God has given, to communicate the gospel in accordance with one another.

As stated earlier by Dr. Dryness, through pure preaching of the Word is how one comes to proper faith.  The artwork of Ruisdael's, "Three Trees in a Mountainous Landscape with a River," depicts Salvation through the cross from the ruin of brokeness.  The painting is marked out by beautiful surrounding nature, centering a sunlit broken tree between two others.  The trees represent the three crosses in the midst of a broken world by human nature.  Pictures really do paint a thousand words.  The simplicity of the visual arts in the church can translate the simple message of the Gospel.  For a final conclusion, Luther said it best on the declaration of art in how it impacts the heart, he says:

"Of this I am certain, that God desires to have his works heard and read, especially the passion of our Lord. But it is impossible for me to hear and bear it in mind without forming mental images of it in my heart. For whether I will or not, when I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart, just as the reflection of my face naturally appears in the water when I look into it. If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in me eyes?"

(Quote from Martin Luther, "East, West and the LCMS: Church Art and Reflections On the American Context," by David Shultz, Online,,)

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