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A Brief History • Art in the Church

How has the Church used art in the past? What happened and why?

Where are we now?


*To see the images associated with the information presented, simply click the highlighted text*

The Rise of Christian Art

For centuries, art has been used in the Christian Church to express and share one's faith. Art has added beauty and has aided teaching in the Church, but due to differing Biblical perspectives, it has also caused division.

Fear of persecution caused early Christians to hide their artwork in catacombs, but the importance of creating art was never questioned. Symbols became increasingly important and were used as visual representations of their faith – many of which are still used today. An example of this is the shepherd carrying the sheep (Fig 1) which represents Christ (John 10:11-18) and visually symbolizes God's love for his people.

Once Constantine legalized the Christian faith in 313, churches were built and adorned with Biblical imagery. Through the centuries that followed, artists were highly valued by the Church, employed to create religious works of art and architecture. The imagery developed and evolved over time and began to include the disciples, saints, and Mary, coordinating with the liturgy's theological teachings. (Fig 2) The Church believed that beautiful Christian imagery helped the viewer worship God more fully, bringing them into a deeper understanding of God's divinity.

During the 12th century, the Neoplatonist philosophy of Dionysius the Pseudo Areopagite taught that beauty, extravagance and light connected your soul to that of the Divine. This philosophy led to even more extravagance in Churches with soaring ceilings and walls of stained glass (Fig 3), lifting one's eyes to Heaven, creating a sense of awe and wonder and connecting your soul with the Divine.

The Renaissance was the pinnacle of religious artwork, and the Church was now responsible for most of the artwork produced anywhere in the world. The art contained nude bodies, realistic narrative, geometric perspective and ornate beauty. Artwork, such as the stained glass windows, told scriptural stories so those who were illiterate could still learn during the mass. The art also included detailed imagery of the realities of Christ's incarnation (Fig 4) – pain, suffering and sadness - furthering the emotional and spiritual connection to God through art. 

The Fall of Christian Art

The Protestant Reformation fundamentally changed this longstanding relationship between art and the Church. Reformed Theologian John Calvin was extreme in his belief against art being used in worship, saying:


"…everything respecting God which is learned from images is futile and false."

(John Calvin - Quoted from Institutes of the Christian Religion - Christian Classics Ethereal Library)

The Reformation (1517 - 1648) saw widespread destruction of artwork within churches. Reformers believed that visual meditation was unnecessary if you simply studied scripture (sola scriptura), lived a life of piety and reduced visual distractions. They firmly believed that art used in worship was a form of idolatry and directly broke the second commandment. (Exodus 20:4-5)

Reformed Churches built during this time were much less ornate and the focus was (and continues to be) on the printed Word, not on imagery. (Fig 5) 

Although art was not wholly discarded after the Reformation, the split in the Church between Catholics and Protestants impeded any new progress within the Church for centuries. Beautiful Christian art was still created, but most were for use in the home, not in the Church. Works depicting a simple everyday life of the faith - prayer, (Fig 6) meals or work – as well as landscapes, still life and portraits - became popular within Christian art circles.

A Hopeful Future


The 20th century began to see a shift in the way the Church viewed the use of art. Some churches have moved beyond the rigid understanding of the second commandment forbidding the creation of graven images. They have come to understand that this is not a command not to create art, but more a warning of the dangers behind the misuse and worship of art instead of God.


The church now looks to other Bible verses, revealing the true importance of creativity found in humanity.


Exodus 25-27 tells the story of how God explicitly instructed the Israelites to create and artistically decorate the Tabernacle – the earthly home of God – including cherubs, flowers and even (imaginative) blue pomegranates.


1 Kings 7 gives an account of the building of Sampson's Palace, said to be the most beautiful in the world.


God directs these artistic projects, ordering artists and artisans to create art and architecture to bring glory to God – not become the object of worship itself.


Looking to the beginning of all things, Genesis 1:1 states, "In the beginning, God created…" The first thing we learn about God – the first thing revealed about Them* at all - is that They are creative. The Genesis creation account teaches that an artistic creator has uniquely formed us and that we have been made in Their image. This image does not mean that we physically look like God, but that we are created emotionally, spiritually and creatively like God. Creativity is in our spiritual DNA, so how can we now, as the Church, use this God-gifted creativity?

This is what I hope to discover through my research, my art and the development of this website and community. 

*The person of Jesus I refer to as he/him, because he was a physical male while on earth, but I believe that God is a 3-being spirit with no gender. I make all attempts to refer to God as God or They/Them. This is difficult due to my upbringing in the Reformed Christian faith, (read: I might miss some!) but today I believe that God, as the Trinity, does not hold a physical gender, male or female, but holds both male and female qualities within Their personality.

TINTORETTO, Jacopo, Crucifixion. 1565, Oil on Canvas, 536 cm x 1,224 cm. Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice

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