Reclaiming Liturgical Art

By Hillary Asbury

Whether or not we realize it, the visual arts are being used by churches every day. If you were to walk into a Christian church of any sort, there would more than likely be a cross hanging somewhere, if not at the focal point of the worship space. That cross is the result of an artist’s craft. From hand-hammered brass to ceramic pieces created on a wheel, many of the communion chalices we encounter are beautiful works of art. These are vital pieces of the church’s function, of the Divine Service, and they are more often than not created to be visually pleasing, with rich meaning and symbolism. Altars and even pews are crafted with care and creativity. Banners fly proudly with symbols appropriate to the church season. Visual aids grace bulletin covers, PowerPoint presentations, and projections. Church logos are created by graphic design. The visual arts are already important to the Christian life, but perhaps we’ve been using this art passively.

One reason using art in the Church might be a challenge is that we may feel we have no real frame of reference for how to do so. Maybe we want to incorporate visual art into our worship, but we are not quite sure how to do it well, how to do it in a way that is faithful and reverent. An example of this is our use of music, an art which is inextricably linked to the expression of our faith. We have a rich tradition of music in the Christian Church. Composers, accompanists, organists, instrumentalists, and vocalists, are dedicated to faithfully caring for the musical life of the Church. They work to produce hymns that are meaningful, beautiful, faithful to scripture, and which focus us on the true Word of God. In the same way that we have musicians who faithfully care for the musical life of the Church, we need artists who care for the visual life of the Church to ensure that it is meaningful to those who view it, aesthetically congruent with the Church’s mission, and an aid in the faithful proclamation of the Word without distracting from it. If the Church is going to continue to use visual means to communicate, it is vital that we do so with purpose. We must think about how we visually represent Scripture. We must talk about how to stay faithful to the Word while making use of our God-given creativity. The Church can no longer afford to be passive with its use of art.

This has and will continue to become more important in today’s society. Our culture and daily communication are becoming more and more visual, and it is vital that we keep up with these changing tides to continue effectively communicating the Gospel. Visual art is a unique and powerful means of communication; it has the ability to be deeply moving for all who see it, regardless of age or level of literacy. It transcends language barriers and helps viewers create connections between complex ideas. It says that which may escape verbal description. Historically, it has been an invaluable tool for instructing centuries of church-goers. It is time to return to the roots of sacred art and to make use of every resource to which we have access to aid in the profound and widespread proclamation of the Gospel.

If we are to be diligent about our stewardship, we must also be diligent in our stewardship of the arts. As the body of Christ, it is important that we be cognizant about how we use the resources and tools at our disposal. How we do this—the actions we take, where we invest ourselves—means something. Everything we do says something about who we are and confesses something about what we believe, so we must be purposeful in all things, including our use of the arts. We invest in our pastors so that they may bless hearts by preaching the Word of God. We invest in our musicians so that they may bless ears with faithful songs of praise to our Lord. We must also take steps to invest in our artists so that they may bless eyes through the visual communication of the beauty of Scripture.

2 thoughts on “Reclaiming Liturgical Art

  1. I disagree with some of my brethren on the subject of iconoclastic art in churches. I have never felt that paintings and murals depicting Jesus, for example, as noted on a wall in my local LCMS church, are appropriate. The mural shows how the artist viewed Jesus, and different artists paint Him from their own imagination as well. It is my opinion, and many disagree in the church, but I really believe Our Lord does not want His image displayed, since no image can accurately portray Him.

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    1. I agree that this is a tricky point, and I think it is so important that we remain reverent in our use of imagery. Some liturgical artists choose to depict Christ in their work, some don’t. I’ve seen images of Jesus rendered with detail in a very traditional old master style, I’ve also seen more abstract versions. It’s a fine line to walk. So far I’ve largely avoided using images of Christ in my work, partly because of concerns similar to those you express. I can tell you it’s an issue I struggle with often. I have found, however, that Scripture is rich with imagery and symbolism, and there is so much to draw on that may not require the depiction of Christ. These are not always simple choices and I think it’s helpful to keep discussing what may or may not be appropriate in our representations of Scripture.

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