Cover Story


"STEALING BEAUTY" Continued...

Issue: "What is art?," March 20, 2004

Human beings can therefore be "subcreators," to use Tolkien's term. Our little creations are nothing next to God's, both in magnitude and in depending on what He has already made, but they testify to God's design and to the powers He has bestowed.

This biblical way of looking at art gives back what Scripture seems to have excluded: representational art. If the creation is God's art, painting what God has created becomes a way of honoring Him.

This is the way the Reformation, with its new biblicism, influenced the arts. Reacting against the practice in medieval Catholicism of using art to represent or even to embody spiritual beings, something that smacked of idolatry, the Reformers channeled art into another direction.

Luther insisted that art could indeed point to Christ and to the historical truths of the Bible, inspiring major artists such as Dürer and Cranach and having the Bible he translated illustrated with woodcuts. Calvin was more iconoclastic, but in a way that, ironically, would inspire the arts. "I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images permissible," he wrote, since irrational fear of art is as superstitious as irrational adoration. "But because sculpture and painting are gifts of God, I seek a pure and legitimate use of each." Teaching directly that art is a "gift of God," he then laid down a principle that would shape Protestant art for centuries: "Therefore it remains that only those things are to be sculpted or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing."

Instead of painting idealized representations of angels, saints, and God Himself, artists would focus on the visible realm: historical events, scenes from daily life, and natural landscapes.

Leo Jud, an even more radical iconoclast than Calvin, said that artists should not presume to paint images of God made by human hands. Rather, they should paint the images of God made by God Himself: that is, human beings. Thus began the tradition of portraiture that would culminate in Rembrandt, in whose art one can discern traces of the image of God in a human face.

The realism of the Dutch Reformed artists-in their portraits, landscapes, and still lifes-grew out of their particular biblical view of the arts and of God's creation.

In America, the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards explored how nature was God's creation and thus, in some measure, God's self-expression. Earthly beauty, he showed, derives from the "beauty of holiness" (Psalm 29:2) and from the character of God Himself.

The 19th-century English critic John Ruskin, building on the notion that God is the source of every beauty and that "every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights" (James 1:17), developed a comprehensive biblical aesthetic that would prove enormously influential both for artists and for their audiences.

"It is necessary to the existence of an idea of beauty," he wrote, "that the sensual pleasure which may be its basis, should be accompanied first with joy, then with love of the object, then with the perception of kindness in a superior Intelligence, finally with thankfulness and veneration towards that Intelligence itself." The very perception of beauty entails love, thanksgiving, and praise.

Furthermore, Ruskin argues that God is the source of every pleasure, so that what gives us pleasure, apart from the distortions of sin, testifies to the nature of God. For example, one powerful aesthetic experience comes from evocations of the infinite, as in the sublimity of mountains, the ocean, or other awe-inspiring landscapes of seemingly never-ending space. Though such scenes can be terrifying, making us feel small and insignificant, they are nevertheless aesthetically pleasing, because they evoke in us a sense of the infinite, which testifies to the infinity of God.

Likewise, an aesthetically satisfying work of art displays at the same time both unity and complexity. The Triune God too is both unified and complex, an absolute union of three distinct Persons. Some art is unified but simplistic; other art is complicated but chaotic. In the best work, the complexities form a perfect unity without sacrificing the individuality of their parts. This is aesthetically pleasing because it reflects the attributes of God.

Ruskin does something similar with other aesthetic qualities: repose (a type of the permanence of God); symmetry (a type of God's justice); the purity of light (a type of God's energy); liberty and self-restraint (a type of God's Law); craftsmanship, technical skill, attention to detail (a type of God's artistry).

Although Ruskin has been accused of turning art into a religion, it is more correct to say that, in his original intention at least, he was exploring the aesthetic implications of a biblical worldview. This was certainly how he was taken by Christian artists such as the American landscape artists who constituted the Hudson River School, the first distinctly American artistic movement, known for their awe-inspiring landscapes which, in their minds, testified to the glory of God.


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