I’ve been jokingly referring to this semester as my “Bible major semester,” as four of the five classes I’m taking count toward my Leadership and Ministry degree. My favorite out of the four however has been Visual Aesthetics and the Biblical Perspective, which is a really long title for what I just call my “art Bible class.”
Lately we have been discussing the portrayal of God in artwork. How do you imagine God? What adjectives would you use to describe God to someone else? This is something artists have been struggling with for centuries — how to portray God in a way that is beneficial to a viewer without it being idolatrous. When we think of artistic portrayals of God, we typically think of a Sistine Chapel-esque old man with a beard, and there is some benefit to thinking of God as a being who is much older and wiser than us. But it is important to remember that historically, religious art is not trying to portray God as we actually understand God to be (an incomprehensibly divine being without a body) but rather to portray an attribute of God to help viewers potentially gain insight into the nature of God. A unique example that comes to my mind is Verrocchio and da Vinci’s “Baptism of Christ,” which doesn’t even attempt to paint God, but rather shows God’s hands at the top of the painting releasing the Spirit to shine upon Christ. I feel there’s also benefit here in the artists not trying to portray God, but still positioning God at the top of the Triune with hands open in blessing.
Portrayals of Christ offer a different theological perspective however, as we know that Christ had a physical body. Many paintings show him with a halo or golden aura, signifying his divine presence, while also annunciating his humanity through the use of his nudity or emotion. Like Christ proving his presence to Thomas through the wounds he received during the crucifixion, artistic portrayals of Christ are working to prove to us the truth of his physical incarnation while also showing his divine nature (one of my favorite modern portrayals of Christ’s dual natures is in David LaChapelle’s “Jesus is my Homeboy: Last Supper”). I traveled abroad last spring to Harding University in Florence (don’t groan, I’ve held off talking about going abroad all year) and saw an overwhelming amount of religious artwork, but the paintings of Christ that I felt best showed his humanity were those where Mary was breastfeeding him as a baby. What a simple and beautiful way to show that he was born a human with needs like all of us, while appreciating the gift of motherhood (see Modena’s “Madonna col Bambino” for an example).
Iconoclastic movements throughout history have led to different perspectives of religious artwork within the Christian tradition, stemming from interpretations of the second commandment which reads, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5a). In Catholic churches, for example, there is a very common use of works that portray the Triune or the saints, and the veneration of icons is prevalent in Eastern Orthodox traditions. Protestantism broke away from Catholic iconography, which is a leading reason why our Church of Christ buildings are so sparingly decorated compared to our Catholic neighbors’. This Protestant breakaway has also led to much tension between our evangelical church and modern art movements. The question remains though: Is a painting of God idolatrous? I don’t believe so. Art is one way we join the Creator in creating. Believers should view religious artwork as a beautiful teaching tool, which can be appreciated but not idolized.