Our college recently built a large chapel designed in the style of a traditional New England church, with a tall white steeple. Inside are simple pews, white walls, large clear windows with a few smaller bits of medieval stained glass in the front preserved from the earlier chapel on campus. It is a beautiful building and one quite comfortable for many American Christians. Christians from the Middle Ages, the Byzantine Empire, or the Baroque period in Europe, however, might be startled by the austerity of the place. Where are the images of Christ and pictures of biblical narratives? There are no heavenly glimpses of angels with gilded wings or ornately carved furnishings.

While in our own time the visual arts are largely thought of as a sphere separate from Christian faith, this is an anomaly historically. For most of the last two millennia, Christian art was the norm. Painters and sculptors, like musicians, saw their work as bringing glory to God. Churches, private chapels, and tombs were adorned with explicitly Christian images that communicated the faith of artists, patrons, and their communities. We see bits of this art preserved in museums and European cathedrals, but we rarely see the art functioning in its original liturgical context, contributing to a worshipful environment. To better appreciate what is missing from our worship spaces today, it helps to explore Christians' first attempts to express their faith through images.

Images and Idols

Christian art got off to a slow beginning. The earliest Christians expected the imminent return of Christ, so they were slow to adopt a program of transforming culture! But there were other obstacles. Christians in the ancient world tended to be suspicious of art and images—for ...

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