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Bring art back home

Why the Reformation should not make you fear art

For a time, the church was the champion of artists and creators of all types. Walk into ancient cathedrals and you can see what I’m talking about. When the population was largely illiterate, these spaces told the stories of the Bible through their artwork. They depicted Adam and Eve’s temptation, the fate awaiting sinners, and our need for salvation. They would show the birth of Christ and the message of hope and the grace of God through parables. Art was the poor man’s Bible.

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The buildings where people gathered to worship were themselves works of art glorifying God: immense spaces filled with the light from stained glass, galleries of mosaic and sculpture, ornate stonework, intricately crafted works of timber and iron, soaring columns and arches. Architecture was designed to give a taste of heaven itself.

There’s something profound about an artist’s ability to look at a piece of timber or stone, or a church community for that matter, and to see what shape it could take.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of the Reformation. A movement that not only impacted religious thinking and practice, but changed the church’s relationship with art. With Protestantism came a sense of hostility towards religious art to the extent that some leaders removed art from their churches altogether, seeing it as a form of idolatry. Of course, there is a great deal more to the story, and I don’t profess to be a scholar of church or art history. Nevertheless, we are still recovering from the impact of the Reformation on the way the church approaches art and creativity today.

It wasn’t until I was at university that I realised this, as the church I grew up in, St Hilary’s Kew, brimmed with creative and artistic expression.

I recall Sundays as a kid, eagerly awaiting whatever creative expression the service held. Dramatic pieces weren’t merely a part of children’s talks, but a way of engaging with Scripture and the world. Musical items – secular songs – were performed as people reflected on their words and meaning. Poetry and dance were a part of worship as much for their beauty as for their message.

In the absence of God, creativity, art and beauty hold little value.

The services were rich with photographic artworks and illustrations, images of places we had only ever read of to inspire and capture our imaginations. These formed the backdrop of times of teaching, prayer and worship. Beyond the services, art shows and theatre productions showcased people’s gifts and encouraged others to explore their own.

I can’t say how much credit goes to Peter Corney [the vicar] for the innovation and artistic work that came out of St Hilary’s, and I suspect he would baulk at the idea of taking any credit at all. But so much of the creativity I see rests on the permission to create that he gave to those he led and pastored.

Peter himself is an artist, a creator. Before he was called to ministry he worked as a cabinetmaker, and he continues to work with his hands, shaping and creating beautiful things from timber. Chances are if you drop by unannounced, you’ll find him out in his workshop, apron on, covered in sawdust. He has a taste for beauty and an appreciation for art, for what it takes to create and the power it holds.

It’s a fundamentally different way of looking at the world.

There’s something profound about an artist’s ability to look at a piece of timber or stone, or a church community for that matter, and to see what shape it could take. It’s a fundamentally different way of looking at the world. Through those eyes, everything holds meaning.

I think Peter was one of the first people I ever heard speak about finding God in art, and allowing God to speak through art. He showed me that beauty, in all forms, reflects the image of God himself.

We were made with eyes to see and ears to hear. We were designed to experience beauty and wonder. We desire it as a result of our deep desire for the one who is the source of all beauty and creativity. And, somehow, art has the ability to connect with us on more than just an intellectual level. It’s incredible how a single piece of artwork can evoke such powerful emotion. How an image can challenge those things that we struggle to even name. How an artist can capture something that is all at once beautiful, heartbreaking and comforting.

Of course, we should be careful not to replace the Creator with the created, or to begin to worship beauty itself. In the absence of God, creativity, art and beauty hold little value. But Peter recognised the power that they can have in helping people to engage with God.

This is an extract from Excellence In Leadership: Essays In Honour Of Peter And Merrill Corney.

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