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Visual Theology: Forming and Transforming the Community Through the Arts

Robin M. Jensen and Kimberly J. Vrudny, eds
Published by Liturgical Press in 2009

What is the relationship, if any, between Christian theology and the visual arts? Does this relationship need to be “contentious”? Should Christian theologians think that the Apostle Paul’s critique of images “made by man’s design and skill” (Acts 17:29) applies to all objects considered “visual art”?

In Visual Theology: Forming and Transforming the Community Through the Arts, Robin M. Jensen and Kimberly J. Vrudny have comprised a collection of essays that all offer a resounding “No!” to these latter two questions.1 In five different sections, the essays in this volume provide constructive and fruitful ways for thinking about the relationship between Christian theology and the visual arts. This review will offer a summary and brief analysis of one representative essay from each of the five sections.

The first section is headed “Visual Theology and the Traditional” and contains three different essays. The first essay, by Charles Pickstone, is entitled “Art’s Last Icon: Malevich’sBlack Square Revisited” and claims that Kasimir Malevich’s painting Black Square (for the visual sake of the reader: the title accurately depicts the painting) should be understood as an “icon” in the “apophatic tradition of spirituality” in the sense that it “strips away the dross and the second-rate in religion and returns it to its very foundations, finding God in silence, in darkness, and in absence of speech” (7). With this claim, Pickstone recognizes that he has to describe his own use of what constitutes an “icon.” He does so by arguing that the painting Black Square makes possible a new, “democratic” understanding of the “truth” of icons where truth is understood as “more a matter of coherence” rather than “some putative correspondence” that continues a “power-centered version” for understanding the truth of icons (8). This “power-centered version” has “disastrous implications for reason and democracy” because it assumes a position of privilege (8-9). Therefore, interpreting Black Square in terms of a theological icon enables us to begin to “see” how icons might encourage a kind of democratic theological reasoning. Pickstone concludes his essay then, contrary to his title, by suggesting that Malevich’s Black Square is not “art’s last icon” but rather “its beginning” (10). The strength of Pickstone’s essay is that one does not need to be familiar with Malevich’s painting in order to grasp Pickstone’s arguments; he does an excellent job of introducing and describing this painting for his readers. The weakness of the essay is a philosophical one: Pickstone actually does not paint the philosophical tradition (to use metaphors from the visual arts) in the best picture possible but seems too quickly dismissive of traditional ways of thinking about the truth of icons by placing all of them under the rubric of “power” and “privilege.”

One of the editors of the book, Kimberly J. Vrudny, contributes an essay to the section of the book called “Visual Theology and the Political.” Vrudny’s essay, “Deforming and Reforming Beauty: Disappearance and Presence in the Theopolitical Imagination of Ricardo Cinalli,” describes Ricardo Cinalli’s painting Encuentros V— which portrays a man in the crucifix position imprisoned and perhaps tortured—as well as his painting The Last Supper—which shows unclothed men suffering around a table with feet coming down onto them (66,68). Because of Cinalli’s own interest in questions concerning prisons and torture as a device of the state, Vrudny does her readers an enormous favor by turning to the work of William Cavanaugh. Vrudny finds Cavanaugh’s books, Torture and Eucharist and The Theopoliticial Imagination, extremely helpful for making sense of Cinalli’s paintings (72-74). Throughout her essay, Vrudny shows much theological sophistication through her engagements with Cavanaugh, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and liberation theology – all to suggest that Cinalli’s works are best described in the theological terms of the Eucharist, political theology, and the “theology of the cross.” The strength of this essay is that Vrudny has shown us how rich a theological engagement with the visual arts can be. The reader comes away with a deeper appreciation not only of the artwork discussed but also the theology used for its illumination.

In the book’s section on “Visual Theology and the Natural,” Don E. Saliers provides a reflective essay entitled “Artist, Clay, Fire, Ritual: A Potter ’s Aesthetic.” Saliers’s focus concerns the practice of pottery. There are two points of theological interest in this essay. First, Saliers recommends cultivating “the virtue of respect” in order to understand properly (a) how beauty emerges within the formation of clay and (b) how that beauty involves “a quality of the good” (105). The virtue of respect is necessary in order to see how making pottery works as a metaphor for the soul of art: “human hands, linked to a thousand years or more of skill, and to primary elements of the world, reveal the aim of all good making” (105). This is what he considers “a potter’s aesthetic.” Secondly, Saliers suggests that there is a kind of sacramentality to the process of making pottery, which he describes in the following terms: “taking elements of the created order, blessing them, breaking them open with fire and time, and giving them back, transfigured, to the human community” (106). With this description of the potter ’s task, it starts to become more apparent that images and objects “made by man’s design and skill” (Acts 17:29) do not necessarily have to be a problem within Christian theology but rather might help the Christian theologian to “see” both art and pottery in different and theologically fruitful ways.

The fourth section addresses the topic of “Visual Theology and the Liturgical,” and John W. Cook’s “Where the Spirit Abides” offers an especially helpful way to think about the question of the importance of architecture. Cook claims boldly that the Holy Spirit “abides with the architects” in their work of constructing sacred spaces (175).2 With this claim, he then proclaims: “It is time for us as church leaders to recognize what [this] profession [of architecture] can help us achieve” (175-176). While Cook’s argument has to be applauded for its thought-provoking originality, Cook’s pneumatology seems to be “low” in the sense that he never distinguishes between what is the Spirit’s work in the world and what is not. It is thought-provoking, especially if we consider the passage from Acts 17 again where Paul “proclaims” explicitly: “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands” (Acts 17:24). As a result of Cook’s reasoning, we might read the verse like this: while the Creator God “does not live in temples built by hands,” He certainly inspires the hands that build the temples!3

In the fifth and final section, “Visual Theology and the Communal,” Jann Cather Weaver examines what she calls “outsider art” and how the church ought to engage it. With this exploration, Weaver offers—in both content and form—a way forward from Paul’s concerns in his address to the Athenians. In her essay, she describes Gary Seal’s paintings through placing them in a liturgical form. She says: “This essay uses a corresponding liturgical structure of worship as its interpretive method of peeling back the layers of outside art” (179-180). She continues: “In this way, we see how outsider art calls us to worship, invites us to confession, proclaims the word, and offers its gifts to the world” (180). Therefore, she concludes: “In this visible liturgy of outsider art we encounter God in strange, beautiful, and uncommon ways” (180). For example, in her section “Proclamation,” she contends that Gary Seal’s painting, Jesus, offers a way for the church to “see” the “Real Presence” of Jesus not only in the sacrament of the Eucharist but also in “Gary’s [own] expression of Jesus through his abstract art” (190). It is at this point that the content of her descriptions seems to break from the proposed form of her essay. While it is true that Jesus’ “real presence” is not limited to the sacrament of the Eucharist, we should be careful also not to conflate or equate the different ways in which Jesus might be present both in the church and “outside” of it.

Having read the collected essays, the reader ought to be in a better position to reflect on the initial questions. What is the relationship, if any, between Christian theology and the visual arts? Does this relationship need to be “contentious”? Should Christian theologians think that the Apostle Paul’s critique of images “made by man’s design and skill” (Acts17:29) applies to all objects considered “visual art”? There seems to be a strong relationship between Christian theology and the visual arts. That relationship might be characterized interms of reciprocity where the visual arts keep theology grounded in a logic of Incarnation, and the visual arts gain from theology helpful descriptions and ways of reasoning about themselves as well as their relationship to the church. This collection of essays displays both sides of this reciprocal relationship.

Furthermore, if this collection of essays is any indication, then that relationship is also a healthy one—and not “contentious.” Christian theologians need to be attentive to the beauty found in the visual arts. There is no theological reason, not even a Pauline one, to consider all images “made by man’s design and skill” to be problematic. In being attentive, however, Christian theologians need to be careful not to overstate the role that the visual arts might play in the life of the church. For example, there is no theological reason to conflate and equate an abstract painting of Jesus as containing the same “presence” as the elements of the Eucharist. Theologians need to proceed with caution. But proceeding at all would be a good first step for many theologians, and this book offers ways for such a procession to begin.

Cite this article
Jacob Goodson, “Visual Theology: Forming and Transforming the Community Through the Arts”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:3 , 325-328


  1. Robin M. Jensen & Kimberly J. Vrudny, eds., Visual Theology: Forming and Transforming the Community Through the Arts (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2009). It should be noted that the “Preface” by the editors cites Acts 18 as Paul’s confrontation with the Athenians. However, this confrontation—which involves Paul’s criticisms of architecture and “images”—is actually found in Acts 17:16-34.
  2. Cook offers “five examples” of “contemporary church architecture” for what he takes to be evidence of the Spirit’s work in the world through the church building’s architect (165-175).
  3. I infer this reading from Cook’s essay; Cook himself does not address Acts 17:24.

Jacob Goodson

Southwestern College
Dr. Jacob Goodson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Southwestern College.