Early in 1522, angry crowds in Wittenberg broke stained glass, burned paintings, and toppled statues of Mary and the child Jesus. Inspired by the iconoclastic rhetoric of scholar and reformer Andreas Bodenstein von Carlstadt, the rabble believed they were upholding the ancient commandment against idolatry by smashing the sacred art of the city church. When Luther returned in early March, he put an immediate end to the violent destruction by preaching a series of powerful sermons in which he condemned the unruly violence.1
Five hundred years later this event has become a foundational story for any Lutheran understanding of the use of images and art in the churches. Unlike other reforming groups in the sixteenth century, the Wittenberg Reformation was not iconoclastic, and most of the theologians around Luther recognized that there are both legitimate and illegitimate uses of liturgical art. When Luther condemned the iconoclastic violence begun by Carlstadt, and when he subsequently reflected upon this in later writings, he followed a very venerable tradition of image use in the Latin Church, a tradition which stretched back at least to Gregory the Great: images are useful for teaching the unlettered faithful, as they present a kind of visual Bible.2
Since the sixteenth century, at the heart of a Lutheran “Theology of Art” has been this valuable pedagogical or catechetical power of art to instruct the faithful. This may still be the fundamental understanding of art in our churches today, but in our contemporary culture, glutted as it is with cheap, fake images and thoroughly starved of real beauty, Lutherans would be wise to recover not only the pedagogical dimensions of art to teach, but the metaphysical power of art to communicate via beauty. This adjustment is necessary in a world as ugly and barbaric as our own, and it’s one that reaches not only West, perhaps to Gregory, but East to the two greatest Christian metaphysicians of the image: John of Damascus and Theodore the Studite. This article will uncover the theological meaning and liturgical value of art for Lutherans today and then advance three challenges to pastors and churches.
Since the sixteenth century, what has happened in the world of art? Simply put, there have been seismic shifts in the purpose, production, techniques, and understanding of art. In late medieval Wittenberg the very notion of “art” was still thoroughly ancient. “Art,” from the Latin ars, simply means “craft, skill, handiwork.” One uses art, that is, skill, in creating objects for human use, whether functional or liturgical. Our modern notion of art as the creation of an experience for persons of high culture is utterly at odds with ancient and medieval notions.3 For them, as for the Reformers, church buildings, furnishings, pulpits, and art are simply good or bad, and we must keep in mind that the Greek for “good,” καλός, also means “beautiful.” Beauty for the ancients was not a subjective experience of pleasure in the eye of the beholder; it was, primarily, the radiance of the Good, the attraction of perfection.
During the ancient iconoclastic controversies in the East, John of Damascus (d. 749) and Theodore the Studite (d. 846) wrote important works which outlined a distinctively biblical understanding of beauty and the use of images in churches.4 Their views have impacted all subsequent Christian reflection on art and images. In their apologias, both John and Theodore remind readers of Bezalel and Oholiab, the skillful craftsmen inspired with creative wisdom from God for the production of the tabernacle and ancient Israelite liturgical items (see Ex. 31). Following St. Paul’s teaching in the Letter to the Romans (1:21), both John and Theodore also point out that God’s “invisible attributes” are communicated via visible creation. Finally, in recognizing the reality of the incarnation, these authors argue that Christians should be able to make images of Christ Himself; for Christ’s divine and human natures exist in the harmony and unity of His Person, and persons may be depicted in art. Therefore, an image of Christ, such as an icon or crucifix, is itself a lesson on incarnational theology and can direct the devotional gaze of Christians to the Savior of the world who has become man for our sakes. This classic defense, along with Gregory’s observation about the usefulness of images in teaching illiterate Christians, constitutes the essential core of a Christian theology of art.
Following Luther, but not the more radical reformers, Lutherans today generally recognize that scenes and symbols in our school rooms and sanctuaries can instruct us as well as aid us in meditation. Today, far from having a kind of superstitious and “talismanic” view of art, as if Christ or a saint could be “contained” in a statue or image, we rather fall into a common, uncritical, modernist mindset: the belief that images, which should just “fill up space” or “make people feel good,” are optional matters of taste, rather than important modes of communication to the intellect and soul.
If we take the more ancient notion of art as skillful, beautiful work done for the glory of God and the use of His people, and if we remember the classic defenses of sacred art, then we should see that the use of beautiful artworks in the church—that is, artistic depictions of Christ, scenes from the Bible, and lives of the saints—can be of inestimable power for catechizing and inspiring the faithful today. In approaching the end of this piece, I offer three spurs to action regarding the matter of art in the churches.
First, faithful pastors today must understand and communicate the singular power of beauty to form the imagination and lift heavenward the inward gaze of the heart. In our visual culture today, starved of true beauty and glutted with what is artificial and cheap, we should not underestimate the power of truly beautiful images to elevate souls to the contemplation of God. Good art has the power to rightly form and focus us, centering us on Christ.
Second, we must remember that the question of art in the churches is not a matter of individual taste or arbitrary decision. Unfortunately, in the latter half of the twentieth century, with the construction of many new churches and the commission of new works of stained glass, Lutherans (like so many others) frequently fell into the trap of an uncritical acceptance of modernist art styles, such as abstract expressionism and minimalism, rather than turning ever again to the rich wellspring of European Christendom. These modern styles, in turn, stemmed from revolutionary movements earlier in the century which often were based on a severely un-Christian philosophy of art. Rather than make a banner or painting “in the current style” simply because it is the one that “everybody is using,” churches instead need to do their research, striving to use forms and methods that honor God’s creation and the heritage of Lutheranism.
Finally, more liturgical art needs to be designed and made by Lutherans, for Lutherans. Churches should resist buying a new banner or altar cross simply based on online availability and cheapness. If there is a woman in a congregation who knows how to sew and craft banners, she must be encouraged to teach younger people to continue the craft. If there’s a man in a parish who went to art school, a congregation must be supportive of his vocation, commissioning him to use his skills however he can, for example, in executing a painting for the church’s narthex, a redesign of the church’s website, a seasonal bulletin cover, or materials for Sunday school.
Sacred Art–skilled and creative craftsmanship that honors God and assists worshipers–for Lutherans must be biblical and beautiful. It should stem from our faith in our resurrected Lord, recognize the talents of our parishioners and pastors, and communicate to the world and to the faithful the excellencies of Christ (1 Pet. 2:9)—the very image (“icon,” εἰκών) of the invisible God (Col. 1:15)—who became flesh (Jn. 1:14).
To Christ be the glory; may all our effort and creativity point to Him.
1 Carl C. Christensen. Art and the Reformation in Germany. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press. 1979. 40-41. To date this is probably the best overview of iconoclasm and theologies of art during the Reformation in German-speaking lands.
2 See Gregory the Great’s epistle to Serenus, included in Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, ed. Theological Aesthetics: A Reader. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 2004. 47.
3 See Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Christian & Oriental Philosophy of Art. Mineola, NY: Dover. 1956. 27.
4 See John of Damascus. Three Treatises on the Divine Images. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 2003., and Theodore the Studite. On the Holy Icons. Crestwood, NY: 1981.