The peril of the artist is his constant temptation to an idolatrous worship of the beautiful creature rather than the beatific Creator. This results in service of the holiness of beauty rather than the beauty of holiness. Nevertheless, art and religion are inextricably bound, and the Christian faith finds its pure expression in artistic forms just as truly as it does in intellectual works of theology or practical works of mercy.

Spirit With Spirit

Of all the art forms, painting is the most peculiarly Christian. Although the ancients and the orientals engaged in painting, it is a historical fact that Christian culture has excelled in this medium. The reason for this excellence lies in the spirituality of Christian reconciliation. While pagan art, where it has made an attempt at reconciliation at all, has sought a resolution of matter and spirit, Christianity with a surer and more reverent realism has found the need to reconcile Spirit with spirit. In Semitic and Hindu art there is no real attempt at reconciliation. The resolution of life is expressed in terms of release (Moksha for the Hindu and an apocalyptic longing for the courts of the Lord for the Semite). Thus there is no reconciliation with either matter or the course of this world—and consequently there is a glaring aesthetic indigence. In ancient Greek and Chinese art there is a serious attempt to reconcile matter and spirit in the form of moderation (sophrosune and tao), a balance between the Dionysiac and the Apollonian, between Yang and Yin. But Christian art does not reconcile matter with spirit by means of a humanized rationalization; rather reconciliation is found only through death and resurrection, death to both matter and spirit and resurrection in newness of life with the Holy Spirit.

Painting is wonderfully suited to express this reconciliation because it is more attenuated than sculpture; more suggestive with its nuances of light, shade, and color; more supple in expressing variety and individuality; more potentially spiritual in its ability, through the use of perspective, selectivity, distortion, and accent, to quell an atomistic self-assertion and to foster the grace of sacrifice. According to the Christian Gospel this world is redeemed not by balancing it properly with an idealized spirit, but by killing it with the Word and raising it anew. Painting is peculiarly fitted to express this revelation because it can show with its suggestiveness both the depravity of the things of this world and the purity of the regenerate life in the Spirit. The Spirit is invisible and believed, yet it is precisely the visible matter and stuff of this world that is redeemed in the Word become flesh.

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I submit that art is that form of service to the ruling spirit of the age in which men try to express the will of that particular spirit by means of some kind of patterned arrangement of space. Art is either spiritual or demonic depending upon whether the spirit of the age is in the service of Christ or Satan. Art is never for art’s sake. Sometimes it is done for the artist’s sake or for Satan’s, but only when it is for Christ’s sake is art true and beautiful and holy.

This view clearly cuts across Plato (art is a copy of a copy) and Aristotle (art is the representation of the universal in the particular for the purpose of catharsis) and Hegel (art is the manifest unfolding of the Spirit in history through conflict) and all the modern theories which try to reduce art to the will (Nietsche, Freud) or the feeling (Santayana) or the mind (Maritain).

One example will suffice to show what I mean. When the Western church fell under the spell of the spirit of this world, she became corrupt. Her great culture lost its salutary grace and gradually became humanized. Thus the last expression of church art, seventeenth century baroque, became a debased concern for nothing but the frilleries of nature. The Puritan reaction to this was healthy in its disciplined resistance against the intoxication of the pretty, but the priggishness of Puritanism was just as devastating to Christian art as was Plato’s prudery to classic art. In each case art fell into the service of the spirit of the age and died with the demon of its choosing.

When the humanist idolization of the natural had reached the end of its moribund journey, the reaction was violent. A new spirit, the spirit of existential integrity, convulsed a new generation of artists. Some of these were called Les Fauves because like wild beasts they tore up all the rules and traditions of the past, and after shattering the fake dead world of their fathers they set out honestly to create a new world as far as they had insight to see. In place of the naturalism of Corot, Millais, and Rubens we find now the “supernaturalism” of Picasso, Bracque, and Mondrian.

Fatigue In The World Of Art

Philosophical pluralism in our age makes analysis complex, for no simple Weltanschauung can be defined such as characterized classical, oriental or medieval art. And yet it is possible to detect a dominating spirit ruling over our age with singular authority in every area of historical activity. In all governments throughout the world today, for example, there is a general weariness in the laissez faire expression of natural law. This is coupled with an anxious concern to manipulate the state according to a new social law. Likewise there is a parallel fatigue in the world of art in its repudiation of sweet romanticism. This is coupled with the frantic attempt to express the deeper realities of the soul by means of unconventional and chaotic abstractions. This new spirit has introduced a new heresy.

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The old spirit has degenerated so much that it controls now only the calendar art of the unsophisticated. In Sallman’s Head of Christ we have a pretty picture of a woman with a curling beard who has just come from the beauty parlor with a Halo shampoo, but we do not have the Lord who died and rose again!

But the new spirit is similar to the Gnostic Zeitgeist in Paul’s day when he complained of “spiritual wickedness in heavenly places.” Instead of holding up a mirror to nature, the artist today deliberately distorts nature in order that he may mirror the human soul. Just as the old naturalism idolized matter, the new abstractionism idolizes spirit, but neither serves the incarnate Lord who redeems matter and spirit, and redeems them not by adjustment and compromise with nature nor by revolt and release from nature but by the killing judgment of God’s wrath upon nature and by the regenerating mercy of his grace.

It is interesting to see that some of the modern painters express their Gnosticism in a legalistic way and some in an antinomian. Mondrian and Rothko, for instance, abstract all natural content in the interest of pure form. Paul Klee, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock, on the other hand, are concerned only for matter, shattering all norms of painting in the interest of an antinomian expression. But all alike have despaired of this world, and at the expense of communicability they have run to a mystic realm of the soul, a huperouranios topos, where conversation is limited to the coterie who have the esoteric gnosis. In some cases this is a mentalistic gnosis and in others it is emotionalistic, but in every instance it is exclusive.

Others among the modern painters are not so unintelligible. Picasso’s Guernica is disgustingly unbeautiful but shockingly true because it tells those with eyes to see that this world is shattered to pieces. But while this is worth saying it leaves unsaid the profounder truth that the broken world is bound together by the bleeding wounds of Christ. And Dali’s Madonna, his two Crucifixions and his Last Supper, far from being pictures of the Incarnation, are surrealistic escapes into a mystic world of dreams. It is not accidental that the corpus on the cross had no wound prints, nor is it just for effect that the Lord of the Last Supper is so ethereal that a fishing dory floats through his midriff. With both of these artists, as with the pure abstractionists, the common denominator is Gnostic weariness with this world. Thus we have seen how with an amazing lubricity modern artists have expressed dangerously appealing half-truths which have captivated the avantgarde sophisticates of our age and put them in the service of a new ruling spirit.

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Where Are The Prophets?

But where are the prophetic painters like El Greco, Grunewald, and Van Gogh who preached the Lord’s death till he come? Certainly Rouault can claim “apostolic succession,” but he is by his own admission the child of an age different from our own. Perhaps this is the requisite we seek: that the artist belong not to this age ever, but always to the coming age. In any case, painting, which is not in the service of the spirit of this age but of Christ, must convey more than the fragmentization of this world and more than the mystic dreams of another world. It must bear Christ in passionate Incarnation and triumphant Resurrection, in suffering witness in this age and confident hope in the coming age, sub crucem cum magna spe.

We Quote:


Editor, United States News and World Report

Those of us who do believe in God avow a faith in the rightness of moral teachings as derived from the Bible.… But we are dealing with men who boast of their contempt for religion—they do not believe in God.

In the Western world, theism is the basis of every constitutional right, every principle of free government.…

The world is not going to be safe for any of us as long as atheistic Communism is enthroned in Eastern Europe.… At the same time we can fervently speak what is in our hearts to the peoples behind the Iron Curtain and pray with them for deliverance. For in the millions of them who still believe in God rests the hope of mankind.—In an editorial, “They Don’t Believe in God,” United States News and World Report, Dec. 27, 1957.

Robert Paul Roth is Professor of New Testament Study at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina. He holds the Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

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