After our visit to the Crocker Art Museum (See Part 1 of this devotional series) my students and I make our way to our next stop: Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. As an art major at the University of Nebraska I learned to love ancient religious artwork. The vast majority of early European artwork is religious in nature because the church was the only entity in the dark ages that had the money to commission artists. Thus, the art centers in those days were cathedrals, monasteries and convents, and we studied them extensively. It wasn’t until many years later that a ruling class developed that could afford to commission secular artwork. For this reason whenever I travel I make a point to stop by any historic cathedrals/churches that are in the area. The artwork always tells a fascinating story of the local culture and religious beliefs.
This same commitment to the arts can still be seen in the great cathedrals of today in the larger cities of America. Even walking up from the outside it is almost impossible to not be captivated by the architecture, especially with the cathedral that we visited here that was completely restored a few years ago in Sacramento, CA.
Once you get past the beautiful façade and walk inside one of these buildings, the artwork that is held within can be even more astonishing and the rich displays can actually be overwhelming at first. Protestants are not used to such elaborate ornamentation and it can take some getting used to, but when I go I am approaching the experience as an artist and art teacher rather than as a worshipper. I always instruct my students to be quiet and reverent and quietly look around at the rich variety of oil paintings, frescos and sculptures that are displayed in the intricate architectural spaces. We are always respectful of those who may be there to worship God in the ways that they have been taught are proper.
So, what is all the fuss about when it comes to artwork in churches? It has been controversial for hundreds of years. The first split in church history between Catholics and the Orthodox Church had a lot to do with ornamentation and icons in the church. If you think this Catholic Cathedral is ornate you should check out an orthodox church some time—they are even more overwhelming when it comes to artwork. Years later when the protestants split from the Catholics they left behind even more artwork and icons behind than the Catholics did when they separated from the Orthodox.
The problem is that some people began to treat the icons as idols. Back in the days when most people were illiterate the physical representations of religious scenes were intended to help people picture what happened in Bible times and thereby be able to relate to them better. It’s just like the story of Moses and the Israelites in the Old Testament where God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole for people to look at and be healed from the venomous snakebites. It worked great at the time but the serpent on the pole eventually became an idol to some of the people and they bowed down and prayed to it—that was completely inappropriate and wrong.
In the same way today we can take a good thing too far or we can use it appropriately in our spiritual lives. I love going into the prayer chapel in my church and spending time with Jesus there. Frequently, when I’m praying and reading my Bible there, I’ll look up at the painting of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane praying. It helps me to picture the scene and relate to the story. I am not worshipping the picture itself, but rather, allowing it to help me visualize and focus on my Jesus. Another example might be, the Uncle Arthur Bible Story books. There are pictures on nearly every page. The scenes draw the children into the stories, captivate their imaginations and help them relate.
When used appropriately religious artwork can be a wonderful and very helpful thing. But, unfortunately, it can also be overdone and misused. Consider the following questions to help you determine if you are using the arts for personal growth, or if they have become idolatry.
1. Are the modern day arts such as: Movies, music and photographs in balance in your life?
2. Do you ever engage any inappropriate forms of these arts that may be damaging you as a person and your spiritual life? Have any of these art forms become an idol to you?
3. How would you like to change the ways that you engage the arts in your life?