We often hear people say that they don’t know much about art, but they know what they like. In truth, what they are really saying is that they like what they know. Usually this person has had little exposure to the arts. Sadly this attitude has prevailed in the church for too long. How can the church help to expand artistic appreciation within its sphere of influence?
Art appreciation requires work; it is a bit like learning a language. Art is a language that the church has forgotten, a language that has been left to only a few. But this generation is ripe for the engagement of art—it is the generation of the image. Images bombard us from every angle. Even though we live in a culture awash in a sea of images, we have lost so much in the way of seeing and interpreting art, especially those from the great legacy of Christian art. It is our loss and it is time to reclaim it.
Christians recite the Nicene Creed affirming, I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. The artist lives out this creed making visible the invisible. The mission of the artist is to help all of us see more fully. Artists do not merely put on canvas what can be seen with our own eyes, but uncover for us something we have not observed, or have only imperfectly realized.
Fra Filippo Lippi’s Annunciation (15th c.) in London’s National Gallery epitomizes for me how the artist can make visible the invisible. When I took our grandchildren to London this painting was one of the pieces I wanted them to see and appreciate. Mary has asked ‘How can this be?’ that she would be the bearer of the incarnation. Lippi too wanted to know, ‘How this could be?’ How could he make this reality physically visible? To answer this, he positions the dove shooting forth a ray of light directly at the level of Mary’s womb. This beam of light cuts a slit in Mary’s garment, and as Sister Wendy Becket writes, fait a complit: the fact is accomplished before Mary can even question it! This event is not recorded in the Gospel, it is Lippi’s artistic imagination—but it conveys truth, a truth that helps us contemplate anew the incarnation. The church could benefit from using historical images like this as we move through the church calendar. We have a rich heritage of art that is waiting to be embraced and enjoyed.
But it is not only historical art that is available and rich in meaning. Art of incredible beauty and quality is being created by a growing number of artists of faith from the most diverse and ecumenical group imaginable. Their art many times flies just below the radar screen of the contemporary art critique because it might not fit the most current trends. But the work of these artists is powerful and worthy of our attention.
In 1980 I promised God that if it did not have to do with faith and art, then I would not do it. That decision has given me great freedom to be involved in Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) and the Museum of Biblical Art, along with continuing to be a practicing artist and a serious collector of religious art. All of these efforts are aimed at helping the church reclaim the arts. For over 20 years, CIVA has offered an array of traveling exhibits of historical and contemporary art to churches, colleges, and seminaries, and as a result several hundred church related galleries have come into existence during that time. Mobia has mounted some of the most significant religious art exhibitions in the United States receiving remarkable reviews. Our personal collection continues to grow and is loaned out to institutions as a way to engage people in the visual arts. Each of these efforts offers experiences and opportunities to expand understanding and appreciation of the arts. These are only a few of the many organizations, websites, blogs, symposiums and conferences that have sprung up to explore new ways of engaging the arts in the community of faith.
There is a quiet renaissance that is taking place in the church to again appreciate and embrace the arts. We must re-learn the language of art and participate in the long tradition that stands before us.
Sandra Bowden is a painter and printmaker living in Chatham, MA. In 2005 Square Halo published The Art of Sandra Bowden. With over 100 one person shows, her work is in many collections including the Vatican Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, the Museum of Biblical Art, and the Haifa Museum. She is also a passionate collector of religious art dating from the early 15th century to the present. Miserere and Guerre by George Rouault was show from her collection at MOBIA in NYC in 2006. Sandra was president of Christians in the Visual Arts from 1993-2007 and has curated many exhibitions and coordinated the CIVA exhibitions program since its inception. She is a founding member and Vice Chair of the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City. In 2005 Bowden was one of the editors of Faith & Art: Twenty-Five Years of Christians in Visual Arts. She studied at Massachusetts College of Art and received her BA from the State University of New York.
Fair use of images is justified because the author comments upon Filippo Lippi’s painting.