A Take on Art & Theology

during the closure of the Balcony Gallery
at Peace Lutheran Church, Salem, Oregon
Rev. Joel Nickel

The current viral pandemic requires personal safety, masking, and observing the directions of public health authorities. In the meantime while our church art gallery is closed, we have a chance to meditate and think about the intersection of art and theology. In prior centuries there was an active faith and art collaboration which produced many cultural treasures. We find ourselves in much different circumstances today when the church is no longer a patron of the arts, and artists for the most part no longer create images and objects informed by biblical narratives and liturgical uses.

The Lutheran tradition hasn’t been noted for developing a theological “take” on aesthetics. If you ask a Roman Catholic, “what is beauty,” the answer would be prescribed by the consideration of proportion, harmony and balance, principles described by Aristotle and contained to this day in scholastic theology. God is ultimate beauty, and godliness can be found in the perfection of form. If you ask the New Testament, “what is beauty,” the answer would be “truth.” Truth is really a verb— defining how one lives and believes and hopes. Truth be told, it is a word that appears in many New Testament texts, whereas “beauty” seldom appears. Now, if you ask a Lutheran, “what is beauty,” you may not get an answer but rather a slow “beat around the bush” musing about daily living, seeing sunsets and flowers, listening to J.S. Bach’s music, as well as contending with the negative that would seem to diminish beauty: disappointment, disease, and loss.

Lutheran theology loves paradoxes: Jesus is both human and divine, God is both immanent and transcendent, the earth is God’s good creation and home to the prowling lion Satan, the Bible is word of God and written with all the limits of human language and knowledge, Christ’s body and blood are received “in, with and under” the form of consecrated bread and wine. Lutheran paradoxes are “both/and,” not “either/or.” Beauty is a paradox as well. We know our own bodies are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and are “temples of the Holy Spirit” but our “flesh” provides a weakness used by both sin and a virus to wreck havoc. Luther’s famous anthropology sums up the paradox that we are at the same time saint and sinner (Latin: simul iustus et pecator)—forgiven but still fallible, a confession which mounts a defense against both despair and pride.

Years ago I attended the dedication of a new Roman Catholic Church, watched with interest the aspersion of holy water around the structure… and was a bit perplexed by the lack of windows and natural light within the nave of the new church. I asked the priest about this and he explained that space isn’t holy until it is properly consecrated, and that in this holy space light would come from the sacramental presence of the Holy. That experience prompted me to come up with another Latin phrase influenced by my Lutheran background: all space is “simul sanctus et profanus”—at the same time sacred and profane, whether inside a church structure or out in the natural environment. The “truth question” is always, “how should we use the spaces in which we dwell?” How should we decorate the worship space to heighten our awareness of the holy? And not only caring for the inside of a building, a “house for the people of God,” but also enlarged into an environmental awareness of the creation itself and our stewardship of this gift. Visual art is a link to the subject matter of the whole creation, requiring form and light. Light is the most spiritual element within any building, tabernacle, or tent; its “shape” is mysterious (particle or wave?) and it allows us to “see the light shining in the face of Jesus Christ.” Light is a sacramentum. So let daylight shine within the church. Yet even the darkness is light to God.

Our saint/sinner anthropology impacts how artists (from a Lutheran perspective) paint the human portrait and figure. It frees the artist from a puritanic piety that is ashamed of the nude figure or physical deformity. The cross is both an emblem of the crucified Savior and of the risen Christ, his body hanging most likely nude (the Romans debased their victims) and also nude rising in glorious morning light (he doesn’t need his grave cloths any longer). On the one hand, he “had no form or comeliness, no beauty or majesty” (KJV & NIV) “to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Is. 53:2). Yet, on the other hand, we “behold his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). We can look for the spiritual within the real, not ideal, corporeal form of Jesus…and within ourselves.

August 6, 2020

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One thought on “A Take on Art & Theology

  1. What a good beginning to the discussion! The point of the paradoxes in Lutheran theology and its ramifications in art is well made. But there are a lot of remaining questions for folks who would like to do “religious” art. Are religious figures or symbols necessary or even useful/ What distinguishes “religious” art from other art?

    This might be a little like asking whether the Brandenburg concertos are as religious as the St. Matthew’s Passion. Clearly the author, one of the best “religious” artists I know has got more to say on the subject and I hope he does.

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