Although there were crowds and long waits to get inside, everyone entering the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in Rome was stunned into silence by the overwhelming beauty and incredible detail of Michelangelo's glorious painting that goes on and on, more than 300 figures tumbling across the high arched ceiling, telling Gods story from creation to judgment.
It happened again in cathedrals in France and in grand churches in England. As we stepped inside from the bright summer sunshine, the loveliness of the stained glass windows caught our attention, moving us to approach their beauty and learn their messages as generations of Christians before us had done.
Sometimes then, or in art museums since, I have been touched by the Christian themes in the art I see. Other times, I've been confused. And I'm often curious about what the artist intended, wondering whether he or she was a devout believer or a skeptic.
But I've also felt the connection down through the ages, realizing that millions of people before me have gazed awestruck or even tearfully at a version of the Pieta, a heartbreaking image of Mary holding Jesus’ lifeless body after it was taken down from the cross. Many artists across time and continents have created this image, Michelangelo among them. The 'power of that sculpture helps us consider what it must have felt like to hold the body of the sinless Christ after watching him brutally murdered as a common criminal.
Millions more through the ages have stood before one of thousands of paintings, sculptures, and stained glass images of Christ on the cross, and thought about the incomprehensible fact that God not only sent his Son to earth but sent him to die. Generation upon generation of artists have explored that image, and its power remains.
Connecting Centuries of Believers
These masterpieces of art not only challenge us to better understand the Bible through the artist's eyes; they also connect us to the generations of Christians who have preceded us. We are fascinated by what they also reveal about what the artist, church leaders, and other Christians understood about God's truth from how they depict it in their artwork.
Wouldn't it be great to be able to learn more about God and our faith through the fabulous riches of art from all over the world?
Joe and Cindy Garland thought so. Experienced small group leaders at Southwest Church in Springboro, Ohio, they are also art lovers.
"We both love art so much," Cindy said, "but we love the Bible even more. We thought, why not tie the two together and teach people about art and the Bible?”
Cindy, who is a volunteer art docent at the Dayton Art Institute, gives credit for the idea to her husband Joe. She was excited and wondered if such a study could even interest non-Christians.
"I'm always trying to figure out what I can do to reach people for Christ," she said. "I'm not good at apologetics, but l had been wondering how I can reach people with my love of art."
Summer Study on Christian Art
So in the summer when their small group normall takes a break, they offered a six-week study. Instead of the low numbers they expected during the busy summer, the study drew more than 40 people, ranging from nine years to 91 years old. They did five weeks of study on some art Cindy selected, and the sixth week they took a trip to the Dayton Art Institute to see other religious art. Members of their church were enthusiastic about the experience, and at least one former member who attended the study was moved to become involved in church again.
Thrilled with this outcome, they were able to take the idea to a contact at Standard Publishing.
Together with Senior Editor Jim Eichenberger, who has a passion for understanding and critiquing the arts and modern culture, the Garlands' original idea was expanded into a series of three different Bible study resources, each containing six Bible studies. The series, called Through Artists’ Eyes (Standard Publishing, 2010), is described as an exploration of Bible-inspired art.
"We were asked to include studies in stained glass and sculpture too," Garland Said. "I was very excited, but I had a lot of learning to do.
"I was the art consultant on the project and researched the art. I would bring it to Jim and we worked together to develop the concepts."
Aesthetics, the Holy Spirit, and Bezalel
Eichenberger shares the excitement over this innovative study that helps modern Christians appreciate the gifts of these artists and grow spiritually by the challenges presented in the artwork.
“The church over the centuries has understood that aesthetics is an important part of the work of the Holy Spirit," he says.
"In fact, did you know the very first person mentioned in the Bible as being filled with the Holy Spirit was an artist commissioned to build the tabernacle?" (His name was Bezalel, and it's in Exodus 35:30-33.)
"In the studies We provide a good background on how the works came to be, what was going on in the culture, and what was going on in the artist's life, he continues. "One of the things that artists like to do, of course, is shake things up a bit. Make people think. But many artists were very pious, and expressed their faith through their work.
"A lot of the art was also meant to be didactic," Eichenberger explains. "The church commissioned many works to teach people the Bible stories, or to correct a theological view they didn't agree with.
"It makes for really interesting studies. We look at the artists, who they were, what they were going through-and compare that to biblical content, then end with a challenge."
God's Word on Canvas looks at six classic paintings by Van Gogh, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Vermeer, and Tintorello with the overall message that the Bible holds the answers to life's big questions. It explores themes of hope, belief, purpose, God's will, strength, and the future.
God's Word in Stone looks at six masterpieces of sculpture by Michelangelo, Bernini, Pisano, Algardi, Donatello, and others, while exploring the overall theme that God can shape us into what he wants us to be. The studies look at the lives of Moses, Habakkuk, Haggai, Mary Magdalene, Paul, and the 12 disciples.
God's Word Through Glass examines six stained glass masterpieces by Matisse, Chagall, Rouault, Tiffany, and others, emphasizing that we shatter our lives but God can make something beautiful from the pieces. Studies explore challenges of overruling God, resisting leaders, immediate gratification, easy answers, mocking holiness, and comfortable religion.
"To be able to express devotion through beauty is really a remarkable thing," Eichenberger muses.
Then he also reminds us of another Scripture we don't usually think of in connection with the arts.
"In Philippians 4:8, Paul says, 'whatever is true, noble, right, pure’-and then he says, ’whatever is lovely and admirable . . . think about such things’ and he's talking about aesthetics. I see this as an ongoing process for believers, not only to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us into truth through doctrine, but also to build our appreciation of beauty through artwork. It's coming at the art through the lens of faith.
”We’ve lost touch with appreciating a God who creates beauty," Eichenberger concludes.
Artists' Eyes Touching the Church
Cindy Garland offers another perspective. Although many of our modern churches eschew stained glass, steeples, and sculpture, Garland sees a resurgence of appreciation for the arts that connects modern Christians with those of centuries before.
"When I was young, churches didn't talk about the arts," she said. "But look at the forms of art now in the church, like big screen videos and drama. I think the arts are again gaining a prominent place in the churches."
An increasing number of churches across the country are adding visual art displays by members to their hallways, while others are sponsoring special arts emphasis weekends to give glory to God for the gifts he's given to artists.
And Garland is doing her part.
During a recent Communion meditation she showed four paintings that depicted the story of the crucifixion and the resurrection and reminded the congregation of Jesus' death and sacrifice. She felt the paintings communicated the message more powerfully than words alone.
She understands the power of visual art to communicate God's Word in every century, seen through artists’ eyes.
Standard Publishing offers a new type of Bible study with their Through Artists’ Eyes series, represented here by God’s Word Through Glass. Each book focuses on a different medium: sculpture, painting, or stained glass, and looks at how artist interpretation of Biblical themes can enrich understanding of Scripture. The six sessions are broken into four sections each, and begin with a light or humorous look at the session theme. From this icebreaker, participants receive an invitation to consider the theme personally. The student then meets the artist who created the work or works discussed. Both the artist’s life and his work spark questions for consideration.
Bible study follows, focusing on the story behind the main work presented, but widening to include other Scriptures that apply to the overall theme. A last section takes all of the pieces and brings them together, both reviewing the material and challenging the reader to apply Scripture personally. Resources at the end of each session suggest books or other media for additional study.
Full color reproductions of each work appear in the front of the study guide. Each participant can refer to the work as needed while answering questions. The Through Artists’ Eyes series would be a good choice for artloving seekers or as a new way of looking at Bible stories for believers who are visual learners. Part art appreciation and part Bible 101, God’s Word Through Glass combines the elements well. Consider the series for either individual or group study.
Susan E. Richardson is a writer, critique reader, and former Christian retailer with a passion for meeting people’s needs through the written word. You can reach her through her website www.nextlevelcritiques.com.
I mentioned a week or so ago that evangelical publishers are doing some fresh new things, and it is a good time for religious publishing. Well read on---this is certainly an example!
Standard Publishing has released three small group Bible studies that are reflections on artwork under the series title Through Artists' Eyes. Inspired perhaps by Henri Nouwen's important Return of the Prodigal Son, a book-length study of the famous Rembrant painting and the Biblical parable, these three new studies look at six art works, invite conversations about them, and then refer the reader to appropriate Biblical passages that relate to the art productions.
Each of the three studies focuses on a particular medium. One reproduces exquisite stained glass and is called God's Word Through Glass while another studies Bible-inspired sculptures, called God's Word in Stone. A third looks at six famous religious paintings and is called, of course, God's Word on Canvas.
It is just fabulous the way these inductive studies invite observation and interaction with the art, allowing for good conversations--- do you notice a certain tilt of the head, a particular slant of light, this tone or color or shape? What does it mean? Can it shed light on the Bible passage? Why these enduring artworks were made, how they were giving expression to a Biblical character or text, and how we can use them in our own Bible study is something to discover as you use these Through Artists' Eyes studies. I don't know if other stores are promoting these, but I have a hunch the publisher took a bit of a risk to produce these. Let's "vote" in the marketplace and get these resources known and used! Thanks to Standard Publishing for doing art-enhanced Bible study---three cheers, for sure!
The art is reproduced on glossy paper in full color, by the way, and they are very reasonably priced at only $7.99 each, making them even less expensive than some other small group Bible study guides. We think they are very nicely done. And they just might accomplish something so very, very important: helping us see and hear God's Word. And, secondarily, it might help give us an opportunity to invite artists into Bible study that honors their interest in classic artistic work. Highly recommended. Do let us know if you have any interesting stories of their use, or what you think. Thanks.