It has been years since Jesus ascended into heaven, the letters of the Apostles are circulating through the cities and the countryside, and a new faith is gaining footing. The early Christians had no category for what Christian art should look like, or how the Church should use it. Their faith was unseen, how now were they supposed to determine the role of art in an instant?
Early Christian Art
And even if these early Christians had more clarity on what Christian art should look like, most of the time, Christians were marginalized, persecuted, or fending off desperate heretics from distorting this fragile doctrine. The second and third centuries were hardly the ideal conditions for a surge in Christian creativity. This is not because the human talent was not developed enough, these early Christians were living in the heyday of Greek humanism, idolatry and debauchery. The Altar of Zeus in Pergamon, mentioned in Revelation 2:12-13, is a perfect example of the kind of artistic culture Christianity was born into. In fact, Early Christian art no doubt took shape as a reaction against such displays. Eric Newton, author and Christian Art scholar notes that “it was the task of the first Christian artists not merely to ignore but to destroy these potent images of power, efficiency and physical perfection, and to replace them by – what?” (17)
The answer was found in heavy symbolism, always created with the intention of teaching, or simply reminding a Christian what it means to be a Christian. A main medium for early Christians was fresco painting on the walls of the catacombs, and primitive carvings on the outside of sarcophagi of deceased Christians. This practice gained footing among Christians first because of the Roman practice of burying the dead in catacombs. Christians adopted practice because they believed in the resurrection of the dead, and regarded death as “true birth” into the heavenly home (Pergola 8). Thus, the catacombs became an regular place of worship for Christians as they would celebrate the Lord’s Supper on the anniversary of a fellow believers death, next to his bodily resting place. Naturally, this was a common place for didactic artwork. But even more importantly, this was the ideal place for this artwork to be preserved.
These ideal preservation conditions have saved the visual manifestation of early Christian priorities. Common symbols were Jesus as the Good Shepherd, a Christian with hands lifted in prayer, the Greek letters Alpha and Omega (first and the last), the Anchor of Hope, and vines and branches showing Jesus’ relationship with the church. Still popular today are the fish–in Greek “icthus,” which is an acronym for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior,” and the Chi-Rho, first two characters in the Greek word for Christ.
All of these symbols proclaim one of three truths: who Jesus is, who Jesus is to the believer, or how the believer should approach this relationship. The purpose of these symbols were clearly for the believer’s edification, and not a nonbeliever’s salvation. If a nonbeliever were to see a fresco in the catacombs in that day, they would be forced to condescend and understand the artwork on Christian terms; it was not seeker-friendly. Going one step further, Newton even asserts that though Early Christian works of art “are useful, but they do not illuminate” (14). Surely these works may have called to mind previous lessons learned from teaching about Jesus, but meditating on the artistic beauty of a curved line in the shape of a fish is not likely to bring any more spiritual truths to light than that which one had at the beginning of the meditating process.
Small Church Art
It is now the age of technology in the post-industrial world, but the not everyone seems to be too effected. Everybody has a couple of Bibles, and no one seems to care. Rural Midwesterners are steeped in the ways Christianity, and they see their faith going techno-crazy in the famous mega-churches. They do know that one kid in the youth group who is pretty tech-savvy, but he’s too busy trying to pass geometry to create a sermon bumper every week. How do they keep up with churches 20 times their size–what does art look like for them?
Though there are numerous contextual differences and a 1800-year time gap, their are a lot of similarities between how the early church created art and how the small church of Protestant Evangelicalism creates art well today. Symbolism is certainly still present, though not to the same extent (probably because Christians do not need a symbol to explain the gospel, but instead can point to the Scriptures which were not yet canonized and mass-published during the time of early Christianity). The most glaring similarity is the paralleled teaching purpose.
Art as a believer-focused teaching tool is a clear parallel between the small churches and the Early Church. For example, Martin’s Creek Mennonite Church is a 250 member assembly in the Midwest, where artwork is highly didactic. The most obvious example is the quilted banner that hangs above the platform displaying the written purpose of the church. It is simple in design, but clear in purpose: reminding Christians how to be Christians.
The medium was picked because quilting is a commonly practiced art in this local church, and it was the simplest choice. The design is plain, and does not “illuminate,” but it serves its purpose to the believers and is well understood and received.
Undoubtedly though, a critic could comment on how quilting is hopelessly out-of-date, and how Christian art should be the best kind of art and how this quilt falls short of that. On the contrary, this quilt is an adequate massage carrier and a true expression of service and love for the church, and for the Lord. It works in this context because it is the art language many people speak in this local church, as many people grew up with quilts as treasured family heirlooms, the best kind of wedding gift to give, and a means of fellowship in the quilts creation. Most importantly though, it is an authentic work that has risen up from within the church, filling the need and accomplishing the goal decided by the church.
The Art of the Empire
Now it is the age of the empire. A battle was won in 313 in the name of Jesus, and the whole empire was converted. Church and state were married at the hands of Constantine, the emperor. Suddenly when it was once Christians flip from being the marginalized to the marginalizers. And art (and official decree) helped spin it that way.
Constantine’s first priority was to give some credibility to this new rag-tag religion. He commissioned churches be built, funded mosaics, and attracted bright and talented artists. The center of Christian artistic expression moved out of the catacombs, and into the light of day, most extravagantly seen with the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. With this building, Christianity become more widely accepted (Pergola 43). Constantinian art, or Christian Art of the Empire, was Christian art too, but it looked completely different from the Early Christian art that was inside the catacombs.
Symbolism and simplicity were tossed away, and magnificent displays of money and power were manifest in art. It was changing the culture, just as Constantine and other powers intended the art to do. Once Christianity had taken over Rome, Constantine set his sights on modern-day Turkey–the city that bore his namesake, Constantinople.
Here, Constantine commissioned the Hagia Sophia, the greatest display of power and glory he could to further elevate the religion of the Empire. The Hagia Sophia, Greek for Holy Wisdom, had an unparalleled spiritual impact on travelers long after the time of Constantine, even to today. The exterior is mildly impressive, but renders visitors speechless in comparison to the interior. The “dome of heaven,” as some call it, is suspended like a majestic canopy as said by the ancient historian Procopius like “a golden chain from Heaven…the space is not illuminated by the sun from the outside, but that the radiance is generated within, so great an abundance of light bathes this shrine all around” (Kleiner 330).
Frank Burch Brown records a story in Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste of Russian nobility traveling to Constantinople and naturally, visiting the Hagia Sophia. Upon entrance, they were so in awe by the grand display and the glory and presence of God that seemed to be in this place, that they converted instantly. Because of the greatness of the Hagia Sophia, they took there new faith back to their homeland and adopted Byzantine Christianity as their official religion.
Christian Art of the Empire was all about communicating a message outwards to culture, that they would convert. Whether the art communicated spiritual truth or not was not the point. The point was to show that the God of the Christians was above all, more glorious and more powerful than any other god. This idea was funded by the Roman empire, as the empire’s dominance was directly associated with Christianity’s dominance.
It is now Sunday, and thousands of people gather in an arena darkened, with colorful lights shining around. People are here not for a sporting event, but a church service. The service starts, and dozens of crews spring into action. Camera crews broadcast, sound men adjust levels, media teams cue the words, videos and images for the crowd’s benefit. Producers keep everything together, and no one really notices, but the videographers are lying slain in a back room, relieved but exhausted, just thankful everything came together, as it always does. When the 100 services are over on 20 campuses, they get everything ready to do it all again next week.
Mega-churches pull off week-to-week displays of art that come with such regularity, it is hardly a surprise anymore. Just as now the European landscape is littered with the skeletons of the empire of Christendom, cathedrals are so numerous it is difficult to believe all the work that went into building them. Here in the twenty-first century, mega-churches parallel this artistic model. Art is highly funded, and high quality, used in hopes of winning people to Christianity, by giving the religion a good artistic standing.
Mega-church art is so clearly seen in Hillsong Church, founded in Sydney Australia, but now with campuses in eight major cities throughout the world. Their artistic reach extends to modern architecture in their buildings, music, graphic design, and video. Clearly, they spend a lot of time, effort and money on their various media artwork. And they are accomplishing their goals. Hillsong has started two new churches in major cities in the past two years, New York City and Konstanz, Germany. They are setting the bar for Christian communication, and are up to par with many secular organizations.
This is so vastly different from the country Mennonite church mentioned earlier. Who is wrong? Should Hillsong start making quilts, or should Martin’s Creek start making videos?
Respectfully, both of these churches should keep doing what they are doing. But not because the status quo is a great place to live, but because these churches are adequately addressing they’re context. They have assessed their cultural context, and recognize the most fitting purpose and media to accomplish this context. Hillsong is city based, where the masses have no respect for Christianity, and are fluent in the language of good design. Thus, utilizing the wide array of talent at Hillsong Church to display excellence, because God is excellent, is fitting. And for Martin’s Creek, in an geographical community where every person belongs to a church, the main need is to create a community within each fellowship, and teach the believers.
The size and context of a local church determines the type of art that is appropriate for that church to create, and it determines the means by which they create it. History shows how the dichotomous nature of how churches create can accomplish diverse–but still valid–feats in ministry. Mega-churches and small churches can have very healthy models of how to create art, though they are so different Even churches that do not fit either of these models may have another purpose and a different means for creating art, and it works if it fits a local church’s context.
Chicago Tabernacle is one of these medium size churches in a unique context. They are not a mega-church, so they do not have the means to influence culture via media. Conversely, they are too many people in an area too metropolitan to be a small church. Thus, demonstrating the concept that context drives art, Chicago Tabernacle has a unique perspective on art, specific to their context.
Many of the people who come to a typical Sunday service are not involved in the church–often called “seekers.” So the art created is trying to reach into a seeker, uncommitted culture and make disciples. The purpose is inward–like the Early Church purpose, but they must appeal to people like they are outsiders–like the mega-church purpose. This is a fine line; people have come to church, but still more involved members must compel “seekers” to keep coming, and then become a part of the group of believers who are, in a sense, evangelizing the church.
This is accomplished through the help of many people in the church, myself as one of them. A great emphasis is put on event planning and event advertising, because this is where people connect with each other, which is the main avenue to move from being a “seeker” to a “server” of the church. Additionally, the art of technology is commonly used to tell testimonies of people in the church. Examples of some of the work I’ve done for Chicago Tabernacle personally and in collaboratively can be seen here.
Theologically, I do not care about the specifics of your church’s use of art. The point is internal and external cultural authenticity. If you want to engage the culture, go for it with all you have. If you want to focus on internal knowledge and growth, be true to the local church body. The universal Church works together on this.
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many…21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.