The Art of Faith: a Guide to Understanding Christian Images

Judith Couchman
Published by Paraclete Press in 2012

The Sacred Community: Art, Sacrament and the People of God

David Jasper
Published by Baylor University Press in 2012

Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty, and Art

Richard Viladesau
Published by Oxford University Press in 1999

Katie Kresser is Associate Professor of Art History at Seattle Pacific University.

This essay treats three recent works on the subject of art and theology, ranging from a simple handbook of Christian symbols (Judith Couchman’s Art of Faith) to a dense and learned discussion of postmodern art and philosophy (Richard Viladesau’s Theological Aesthetics). The wholly disparate character of these three works reflects the state of the field today, such as it is. For at the crossroads where the phenomena art and theology meet, several disciplines also join; these include many subcategories of the discipline of theology (including the theology of worship), philosophy (specifically aesthetics), art history (the study of art’s development), art criticism (the practice of defining values for art), connoisseurship (the art of appreciating art), and of course, the act of art making itself, upon which all the others hinge. Though all of these human thought-worlds, these intellectual realms, are united in their concern for the human act called “art” and its spiritual ramifications, it is also true that few of these thought-worlds regularly communicate. Art history and art criticism, for example, seldom take the measure of theology. Meanwhile theology, queen of the sciences, seldom “looks down” to see what transpires in these other disciplines, choosing instead (it can seem to those lower down) to improvise based on a priori assumptions plucked from the air. Art and theology are perhaps most fully joined in the work of practicing artists, whose drive to create abides, and whose lived experience (including lived spiritual experience) cannot help but inform their work. Yet few artists, simply by virtue of their vocation, have the leisure to delve deeply into the theological debates of the day.

It seems useful, then, to start from the very beginning. What, for example, is art? (And suddenly hundreds of college professors and students everywhere roll their eyes.) The question is an old one, and for that very reason, its answer is not as simple as one might think. For example, it has become fashionable in recent decades to contend that art is defined by its context only (that is, any object that is declared “art,” whether verbally or through its situation on a pedestal or in a museum, is ipso facto art); this point of view is most commonly associated with the Readymade works of Marcel Duchamp. Alternatively, for many of us, an object must have personally expressive, emotional content in order to qualify as “art.” And then most of us, upon reflection, might define art as a human product marked by superior, or more properly beautiful, craftsmanship. This last definition “nets,” as it were, products as diverse as an oil painting, a Tiffany window and a Ming vase; it does not discriminate according to medium or intent.

But even for the champions of craftsmanship there is perhaps one additional criterion. Today, and perhaps for a century or two, for something to acquire the status of a “work of art” it has to have something else – a certain poignancy or incisiveness or liveliness. More specifically, great “art” has to have a certain revelatory relationship toward the deep reality of things; it must come from a sincere and open-eyed place, so that its craftsmanship is put in the service of some kind of “truth” (whether it is a truth to medium, a truth to self, or truth to observable nature). These are all “big ideas” – truth, reality, sincerity – and they are squishy ones, difficult to define. But defining “art” might be a little bit like making art itself: in neither case is a bald definition acceptable. For in both cases (the operational definition and the practice) one ends up with formulations marked more by their disposition toward some reality to be described (bearing witness to something like a gravitational pull), rather than by some completely sufficient logical mastery.

The art critic and historian Richard Shiff once wrote about rival concepts of originality: according to some, says Shiff, “originality” consists in doing something novel – that is, originality equals newness. But according to others, Shiff continues, “originality” is actually a “return to the origin” – that is, the “original,” productive ground from which a traditional idea or theme has sprung.1 Perhaps Shiff’s notion of a “return to origins” best illuminates that necessary characteristic of art above and beyond mere craftsmanship: the true artwork is an expertly crafted (and thus supremely effective) communication whose content, whose inspiration, arises from the existential origins of all thought. Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is thus a supremely effective communication of the real playfulness, freshness, and tranquility of health and joy and springtime. A Ming vase is a supremely effective communication of the sinuousness and voluptuousness of nature, captured not only through the shape of the vase itself, but through the intricate decorations of blue and white. Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night is a supremely effective communication not only of the familiar nighttime, but of human smallness, cosmic bigness, and the mingled sadness and joy that comes from considering both. And a poem like Gerard Manley Hopkins’s The Windhover is a supremely effective communication of, not only the hot, lofting energy of a single bird, but of all creation as it burgeons and sings.

If this definition “works,” if we can accept it, then it seems fitting that such lofty human products be called art. The word “art” is simply short for “artifice” – which itself is a word of broad reference, applying to anything made by human hands. Our attribution of the shortened form “art” to those products of ours that reflect what is truest and highest speaks well for the priorities of our language-forging ancestors. The word perhaps implies that all of our artifice, in the end, ought to (and unwittingly does) aim toward the truest and highest. All of our artifice aims to be “Art.”

Thus the products we call “Art” always command a sort of reverence, even if it is sometimes a reluctant reverence. The three books under consideration here accordingly manifest that reverence, albeit in different ways. Judith Couchman, in her book The Art of Faith, approaches the entire range of Christian material culture reverentially, as a vein of riches to be mined for devotional contemplation. David Jasper, in his book Art and the Sacred Community, identifies art as the mystical fulcrum upon which the church as a community turns. Richard Viladesau’s book Theological Aesthetics, alone of the three books considered in this essay, does not proceed from an unexamined conviction of art’s nobility. Instead, it employs philosophical reasoning to “get to the bottom” of what art is as a human, and spiritual, phenomenon. Consequently, Viladesau’s book is the least overtly celebratory of the three, but it is also convincing, forceful and bracing, providing a clear-eyed view of art’s function vis-à-vis other facets of human life (not least human reasoning, of which the book itself is a stellar example).

Before proceeding, it should be noted that this essay is written from the perspective of an art historian – not that of a theologian, and not that of a practitioner of art (though writing, even academic writing, is its own type of art). As a scholar, I am biased in honor of the material fact (of which the artwork is a particularly complex example). My own historical method consists of collecting as many brute facts as possible and waiting, inductively, for some underlying pattern to emerge. It should be noted that within the field of art history many scholars have been at work for decades building, piecemeal, a history of art and spirituality, and at the same time they have begun to forge a language for the discussion of art and spirituality. Some of the important names in this field (at least as it pertains to the Western world) include pioneering scholars of medieval art history (a field in which the topics of religion and spirituality cannot be ignored) such as Otto Demus and Jaroslav Pelikan and more recently Herbert Kessler and Jeffrey Ham- burger. In the field of modern art, and particularly the art of America, scholars like David Morgan and Sally Promey have attempted discussions of spirituality embracing early folk and revivalist traditions as well as mainline Protestant developments. On the margins of academia, meanwhile, theologians and spiritual thinkers have issued their own historical works on the topic of art and spirituality. Within evangelical circles, the most influential of such treatments probably come from Hans Rookmaaker and Francis Schaeffer – and both of these accounts are regrettably flawed. The simplistic understanding engendered by the work of these authors has recently been ably challenged by Daniel Seidell in a book directed toward a general evangelical audience, God in the Gallery (2008). Meanwhile in 1996, a landmark exhibition called Negotiating Rapture attempted to locate in art from a variety of faith (and non-faith) traditions a kind of dynamic of “upward movement” whereby a gap is artistically bridged between the tangible and the ineffable. Negotiating Rapture (and its catalog) underscore the fact that at its heart, the entire modernist tradition has been attentive to the intuitive, verbally inexplicable grounds of the creative process.

The three books under consideration in this essay represent this mottled discourse as a whole, in the sense that they are so extraordinarily dissimilar as not to seem part of the same conversation. Couchman’s book, as noted, is a modest one written for a popular audience. Jasper’s is a highly personal, even indulgent, book that speaks first perhaps to the author’s immediate peers and followers. Viladesau’s Theological Aesthetics, meanwhile, is a rigorously reasoned, densely written book for academic theologians and philosophers.

Couchman’s The Art of Faith, as indicated, is the most populist of the three. Its language is simple and direct; one could imagine the book being used as an instructional text in Christian high schools. The book functions as an encyclopedia of Christian iconographic symbols, though it is far from comprehensive (for example, a very important medieval formulation of the Trinity was omitted). In keeping with its encyclopedic nature, Couchman’s Art of Faith is divided into six sections: a methodological and historical introduction in which the nature of “iconography” as visual symbolism is helpfully described (Part I); iconography pertaining to the Holy Trinity (Part II); iconography pertaining to “The Unseen World” or the heavenly hosts (Part III); iconography pertaining to “Faithful Followers” or the apostles (Part IV); “Sacred symbols,” including flower, color and animal symbolism (Part V); and a final section devoted to the uses of liturgical objects (part VI). In parts I-IV, the organizational method employed seems to have driven the types of motifs discussed. That is, instead of looking at the surviving body of Christian art and highlighting the most frequent and important motifs, the author has, in an a priori fashion, determined which Scriptural episodes and characters are likely to be important to her twenty-first-century readers, and then she has hunted down sometimes rather obscure historical treatments of those figures. This strategy makes the book of dubious historical value; however, non-expert readers will probably appreciate an organizational structure that is both accessible and “relevant.”

Within each part of Couchman’s book are chapters dividing the selected motifs into more specific groups. For example, in the “Holy Trinity” section, there are chapters for God the Father, Jesus (whose exploits are given four chapters, including one chapter devoted exclusively to the cross) and the Holy Spirit. Within each chapter, iconographic motifs are presented in alphabetical order, along with both descriptions of the motifs’ devotional or narrative significance and descriptions of physical examples of the motifs as they appear within the body of Christian art. Regrettably, the treatments of the physical examples of each motif are almost always verbal; that is, they are almost never supplemented by illustrations.

As noted, there is a somewhat devotional air to Couchman’s book; the subjects treated by the author seem to have been selected for their contemporary devotional resonance and not for their prominence in the art-historical record. For example, the author insisted on including the subject of “commissioning” (the Great Commission being an important subject to modern evangelicals), even when she could find no better physical example of artistic “commissioning” than a sculpture of the Ascension of Christ – which itself belongs in an entirely different and self-contained category of motifs. As Couchman writes of this sculpture on page 208, “in glazed terra cotta, the artist captured Jesus ascending to heaven after commissioning his disciples to preach salvation throughout the world.” Her text, by connecting “ascension” and “commission,” must provide the link that the artistic motif itself cannot self-evidently supply. Elsewhere, the author further exercises some creative, and devotionally inflected, discretion in selecting examples of her a priori categories. In her chapter on the “Holy Spirit” for example, she declares that the Holy Spirit is often represented as a cloud in Christian art, and she then gives the following (solely textual) proofs: when conceiving Christ, Mary was “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit; when Transfigured, Christ was enveloped by a cloud; and when led through the desert, the Israelites followed a cloud. It seems theologically reasonable to the present author to interpret each of these manifestations as the Holy Spirit; however, it is historically hasty to lump them together, especially when none of these examples comprise a major motif in Christian art. As if to highlight the historical indifference of Couchman’s text, the visual example then given for the cloudlike Holy Spirit is not an important work of art at all but rather a minor illustration from the book of Exodus in Luther’s Bible.

Furthermore, the author is sometimes inconsistent in her definition of visual motifs. For example, when discussing “chanting,” Couchman does not find a pictorial example of figures chanting (as she does with the majority of her motifs), but she instead cites as her material example a page of music that would have been used by real-life chanting worshippers. Other times, the author is unable to locate a motif that corresponds to the subject she has delineated, so she has to make due with something else. For example, Couchman chooses as her example of “fasting” a picture representing the temptations of Christ – again, a separate subject in its own right. The curious way the author has categorized her motifs also sometimes makes information inaccessible to the reader who does not choose to read the book from front to back, continuously. For example, in the chapter titled “Jesus Christ,” the following motifs are alphabetized at the end of the chapter under “w”: “wearing purple,” “wearing white.” This counterintuitive decision to embed color symbolism in a gerund-phrase related to Christ’s behavior makes the information difficult to find.

In sum, it is hard to imagine quite who this book might serve. It is insufficient as an encyclopedia, but its encyclopedic nature also makes it difficult to read from cover to cover. At times, The Art of Faith feels like a book that the author, a Christian devotional teacher and an adjunct art history instructor, wrote for herself alone. The Art of Faith would perhaps best be used by general audiences who might wish to structure daily devotions around varying visual motifs that can be found on the Internet. (As the author herself points out, all of the images she describes are available online, most of them through a single source – the Bridgman Art Library.)

David Jasper’s book The Sacred Community is a sequel to two earlier volumes, The Sacred Desert (2004) and The Sacred Body (2009). Jasper himself relates that The Sacred Community is meant as a sort of fulfillment of the promise toward which his earlier two books pointed. If The Sacred Desert was about the spirit, and The Sacred Body was about embodiment, The Sacred Community is about both together: it is about spiritually independent, embodied individuals living and worshipping in community. The goal of the book is to show how “artworks” of various sorts have become focal points for communal action, the most paradigmatic of which is the singing of the liturgical Sanctus with the saints in heaven. And if the Sanctus is one such artwork, the Bible is another, the Christian liturgy as a whole is another, and works of visual art are still others.

Jasper’s book is elegantly organized around the trope of the Sanctus. At the beginning of the book, Jasper introduces the sublime mental image of saints and angels singing together in Glory, and he reintroduces this image at strategic points in the text – just at those points, in fact, when the reader begins to feel she may have lost her way. Finally, Jasper ends his book with a lovely meditation on the Sanctus, reminding the reader that each work of art considered, rapidly or at length, in his many chapters, functioned (and functions) as an imaginative meeting place for believers past and present.

The chapters themselves, in The Sacred Community, are of varying length and verve. Some seem to function independently, as if they were not originally intended to be part of the book. Meanwhile other chapters illustrate the book’s themes admirably and without strain. Chapter 1, “The Bible and Liturgical Space,” examines the Bible as a work of poetry around which a community gathers. This sets the tone for later, aesthetic treatments of works not often utilized for their aesthetic value. Chapter 2, “The Sacrificial Praise of the Eucharist,” is the anchor of the book, and it examines the Eucharist as the paradigmatic communal activity, which is also a sacrificial activity, undertaken in emulation of Christ himself of whom we are all the image. Chapter 3, “Evil and Betrayal at the Heart of the Sacred Community,” is perhaps the densest of the book and the most suffused with literary-critical gymnastics; it addresses themes of actual and formal betrayal as recounted and enacted in the biblical book of Mark. Of the 11 chapters in The Sacred Community, “Evil and Betrayal” is perhaps the least fitting and the most tortured; the theme of “community” is lost amidst sophisticated, even esoteric, meditation on the literary turns and rhetorical lacunae of the Bible’s simplest, and in ways most mysterious, version of the Gospel.

Other chapters in Jasper’s book are more historically specific – that is, instead of treating a text, or a ritual, around which contemporary Christians are still gathered, these chapters examine how works of human artifice served as focal points for community in the past. Chapter 4, “The Community in Pilgrimage,” is about the fellowship created by the ancient act of pilgrimage, with reference to texts like The Canterbury Tales. (Certainly Christians still undertake pilgrimages today, though the activity is much less prevalent than it was in centuries past.) Chapter 5, “The Community of the Book and the King James Bible,” is, like chapter 1, about community through shared text – but this time the shared text is not only the Bible itself, but a complement of distinctively English family tomes, including primers and prayer books. (This chapter, particularly, reflects Jasper’s heritage as an Englishman and his expertise as a historian of literature.) Meanwhile chapter 6, “The Community in Repentance,” is about the experience of viewing the work of seventeenth-century painter Georges de la Tour; and, inasmuch as de la Tour portrayed the act of viewing, especially in his famous painting of Mary Magdalene before a mirror, chapter 6 is also about the viewing of viewership, showing Jasper’s particular facility with meta-analyses of culture consumption, whether visual or verbal.

The last several chapters of Jasper’s book wax more theoretical. Chapter 7, “The Artist and the Mind of God,” steps back from the theme of communal action and explores the minds of the artists themselves who provide foci for communal interaction. In its critical reflection on the act of artmaking, chapter 7 is unique, and also central to Jasper’s project, as it provides grounds for Jasper’s ennobling of these artificial products (whether paintings or texts) as spiritual foci. Chapter 8, “Art and Communities of Oppression,” is about the Christian community looking not at uplifting representations of hope or repentance, but rather at nothingness; in this chapter, a community is gathered around the void created by evil. Chapter 9, “The Politics of Friendship in the Post-Christian West,” is an intriguing discussion of our shared ethics in a post-Christian world; members of both the Christian and the wider Western community gather together around shared values supplied by, but no longer restricted to, the Christian tradition. Chapter 10, “The Sacred Community and the Space of Architecture,” is about how communal experience can be used to shape architectural spaces, rather than the reverse. Finally, chapter 11, “The Church and the Community in Contemporary Society,” is a summary, culminating in the contemplation of the Sanctus.

Like Jasper’s earlier books in this trilogy, The Sacred Community is elegantly written, and Jasper succeeds in reiterating his central theme and relating his disparate observations to the same theme, so that the ending of the book feels inevitable. However, Jasper is not an expert on every subject he attempts, so some treatments feel driven more by literary necessity than by the testimony of history. For example, Jasper’s discussion of the “vanishing point” as it appears in art during and after the Renaissance is both beautifully poetic and blithely ahistorical. For Jasper, the “vanishing point” is a sublime manifestation of negative theology: it is the point at which humankind’s attempts to compass the divine utterly vanish in the face of the transcendent. Art historians like the great Irwin Panofsky, however, have interpreted the vanishing point (and perspectival space in general) very differently: for Panofsky, the vanishing point and the horizon line are instead emblematic of Renaissance humanity’s confident attempts to accommodate all of reality to the sovereign individual’s viewing needs. Jasper’s forays into the realm of art theory, meanwhile, feel youthful, suffused with the enthusiasm of the neophyte. For example, his discussion of “the mind of the artist” is worshipful; here Jasper sounds like a starry-eyed convert to a new way of thinking. One feels that Jasper, near the end of his career, has been liberated from the straitjacket ways of too-rational theology and has been freed to think (at least a little) like an artist. Thus he both praises artists as prophets and proclaims to work (at least a bit) like an artist himself.

The Sacred Community meanders. It is meant to set the reader on a journey that is more important than its destination. The main idea of the book can be summed up very succinctly: we as Christians gather together in community around works of art. Each chapter is one instantiation of this truth. The reader hunting for systematic reasoning is likely to be disappointed. Nevertheless, Jasper’s treatment of both art works and the artistic process is (if worshipful) very sensitive and astute. In his sympathetic attention to the aesthetic dimension of both pictures and texts, Jasper fares better than most theologians who approach the thorny intersection of spirituality and art.

Richard Viladesau’s Theological Aesthetics is a masterful work now reissued in paperback fourteen years after its debut. The book is deserving of this reissue, and is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the spiritual dimension of art. Viladesau’s aim is to develop a “foundational” method for the theological consideration of aesthetics. Viladesau is a professor of philosophy at Fordham University, whose educational mission has long been identified with the Jesuit tradition. Consequently, in fulfilling his aim, it is appropriate that Viladesau relies heavily on the work of the Jesuit philosophers Bernard Lonergan and Karl Rahner, exact contemporaries whose ideas of the “foundational” (Lonergan) and the “transcendent” (Rahner) pervade Viladesau’s book.

Put simply, Lonergan’s (and Viladesau’s) notion of the “foundational” (theologically speaking) is that which is common to the experience of the entire community of the “converted.” Upon conversion, the Christian’s view of the world changes: she perceives dignity in other men and women, whom she comes to regard as her brothers and sisters; and she perceives dignity in the God-created earth, of which she becomes a loving steward; she perceives moral agency behind the actions of women and men. In short, her entire vantage on the created world is transformed and redeemed. For Viladesau, these “foundational” transformations necessarily have an aesthetic element, so that all believers share not only new experiences of dignity and morality, but also new experiences of pleasure and beauty.

And how can these experiences be understood? In Viladesau’s view, Rahner’s “transcendental” theology provides the best key. For Rahner, the human ability to believe in God, to have faith, is founded on a shared “pre-apprehension” of the divine. This pre-knowledge, so to speak, is the precondition for all other forms of true knowledge. It is a sense, an intuition, with which all human beings are born, and upon which all human beings can draw, provided they are sufficiently open to the testimony of the God-infused universe.

The aesthetic dimension, then, is a facet of the divine that, like the Good and the True, is “pre-apprehensively” available to anyone open enough to receive it. Accordingly, the aesthetic dimension is also a facet of that total life-experience of which the “converted” achieve a transformed view upon their turn toward the living God. Consequently, aesthetic experience is something that bridges the gap between the Church as a community of believers and the extra-ecclesial experience of beauty and pleasure. It is also a realm in which the converted can experience a gorgeous flowering of sacred art, music, drama, literature, and more broadly, action of all kinds, insofar as all “engraced” action is beautiful to contemplate.

While expounding his theory of theology and aesthetic experience, Viladesau engages in sympathetic readings of a variety of artworks (musical, visual and literary); he even discovers in such works a kind of self-disclosure of their aesthetic grounds for existence. Chapter 2, for example, launches with an extensive consideration of Arnold Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron, in which Viladesau persuasively finds a dialectical unearthing of the differences between poetry (Aron) and prose (Moses). Schoenberg has shown that at the very foundation of Jewish law there was (and there remains) a war between principal modes of discourse; he also demonstrates that both modes of discourse are needful in human worship. And in other chapters Viladesau finds aesthetic truths in the works of poets as various as Matsuo Bashō and Humbert Wolfe. In the poem “Deer Fence” by the Chinese writer Wang Wei, Viladesau notes a theme of “emptiness” that points irrevocably toward the sensible but not fully knowable realm of the transcendent.

For Viladesau the created world is infused with divine likeness. God’s image on earth appears in two ways: first, it appears in the form of the human knower as an image of the knowing God, and second, it appears in the form of the content of God’s self-revelation to humans (his image as received through human perception). As knowers in the image of God, we have an automatic pre-apprehension, or an a priori grasp, of the divine totality. We then resolve elements of that totality into the concepts and analogies that comprise the dogmas and stories of our historical religions. But we always feel an “excess” beyond our human concepts and analogies. It is this “excess” that constantly and salubriously reminds us of God’s transcendence. Furthermore, we know that our insights are trustworthy, for our experience of beauty is proof of God’s ultimate Beauty. As Viladesau writes, “God is thus self-subsistent Joy in God’s own being and in all that participates in it, and the supreme goal and mover of human desire” (139).

In his final chapter, the very logical Viladesau provides moral justification for our fixation on beauty. Though art is often blamed for inciting idolatry or fomenting distraction from worthier objects of contemplation, Viladesau notes, art and beauty are nevertheless still necessary. For Viladesau, humans know primarily through affect, analogy, and story – not through merely logical concepts. Furthermore, artmaking can be a symbol of the redemptive process. It can show our own sharing in God’s glory, and in its beauty, it can anticipate our ultimate end. Finally, art shows, but does not judge, helping us learn through understanding rather than dictate: “Art is an effective moral educator because it portrays vice and virtue rather than legislating about them” (212). Viladesau’s championing of production-in-beauty extends especially to the custodianship of our built environment, for his view of our modern cityscape is dire: it is alienating, stifling, deafening. Art becomes especially important as a substitute for the natural beauty of which we are deprived.

In short, then, Richard Viladesau’s Theological Aesthetics aims to elucidate the conditions of possibility of both David Jasper’s Sacred Community and Judith Couchman’s Art of Faith. Without the pre-apprehension of “excessive” beauty that Viladesau describes, neither Jasper nor Couchman (per Viladesau’s system) could speak of a theologically inflected art. In this sense, Viladesau’s work seems by far the most important and ambitious of the three books discussed here. Each other book, however, loosely practices its own “theological aesthetics”: Jasper treats both artistic and theological ideas with spiritual wisdom and aesthetic flair, and Couchman presupposes a vast body of theological teaching in her mining of the Christian visual tradition. Each work bears witness to the richness of a special realm of human experience, and each work is suitably grand in its rhetorical self-positioning. If, as noted earlier, all of our artifice is “art” at its core, aiming toward the truest and highest, then there is nothing like art to inspire more art.

Cite this article
Katie Kresser, “Art and Theology—A Review Essay”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:1 , 65-74

Footnotes

  1. Richard Shiff, “Originality,” in Critical Terms for Art History, eds. Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 145-159.

Katie Kresser

Seattle Pacific University
Katie Kresser is Professor of Art History at Seattle Pacific University.