« Arsenius Art and the Church Art, Hebrew »

Art and the Church


Art is the Early Church (§ 1).

The Romanesque and Medieval Periods (§ 2).

The Renaissance (§ 3).

Since the Reformation (§ 4).

1. Art in the Early Church.

There is nothing in the nature of Christianity which excludes art, although in the Apostolic Age, under the prevalence of the purely religious contemplation of life and life’s problems, the knowledge and cultivation of it naturally receded. But when Christianity entered into the world of Greco-Roman culture, it soon became evident that it had great receptivity for art. If the Church allowed artistic decoration in the solemn resting places of the dead, the catacombs, as early as the end of the first century, the conclusion is justified that art had also a place in the house of worship. Herein the fundamental position of the Church is clearly expressed; and the steady growth of artistic activity during the second and third centuries indicates not only a tacit permission, but even an active promotion on the part of the Church, though no definite statement to that effect is found. Nevertheless, some doubts were felt. The existing art was intimately connected with the cult of the gods and was thus defiled by heathenism. With this in mind, and knowing that Christian artists manufactured idols, Tertullian attributed to the devil the introduction into the world of artificers of statues and likenesses (De idolo latria, iii.). But herein he does not touch upon the fundamental question, having in mind only art stained by idolatry. Clement of Alexandria is of much the same opinion, yet he adds “let art receive its meed of praise, but let it not deceive man by passing itself off for truth” (Protreptikos, iv.). The judgment of both Tertullian and Clement was warped by the ascetic ideal. Again the Old Testament prohibition of likenesses of living things had influence, and prevented all portraiture of God in human form till the second half of the fourth century. The Spanish synod at Elvira about 313 (see Elvira, Synod of) declared that “pictures ought not to be in churches, nor that which is worshiped and adored to be depicted on the 306walls ” (canon xxxvi.). The same considerations influenced Eusebius of Cæsarea, as may be seen from his letter to the empress Constantia; and, to a still greater degree, Epiphanius, who tore down a curtain adorned with a picture in a Palestinian village church, because it was contrary to Holy Writ (Epist. ad Joh. Hieros., ix.). The fear that the masses just emancipated from heathenism might transfer the heathen image-worship to the Christian was not groundless. But the general view of the Church was not expressed by these voices. Men esteemed for knowledge and the Christian life take note of works of art (Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa), encourage artists (Basil the Great), or express pleasure in artistic creations (Gregory of Nazianzus). Still more explicit is the language of the monuments of art. From the time of Constantine ecclesiastical architecture, representative art, and the minor arts made rapid progress. Not only the houses of worship but the holy vessels, vestments, and the like received decoration. Even an ascetic like St. Nilus planned a magnificent church (cf. Augusti, ii. 88 sqq.), and everywhere throughout Christendom bishops were eager to build (cf. Schultze, 31 sqq.). There was less reason for denying the admissibility of art, since it was believed that more than one picture had originated by divine miracle (cf. E. van Dobschütz, Christusbilder, Leipsic, 1899) and even the evangelist Luke was regarded as a painter (cf. T. Zahn, Einleitung in das Neue Testament, ii., Leipsic, 1899, 337).

2. The Romanesque and Medieval Periods.

In the Carolingian. and Romanesque periods the clergy and monks were the creators of ecclesiastical art. The Benedictines long stood at the head. The Gothic also developed under church influence, although in it the lay element had a greater part. Art-loving prelates are met with throughout the entire medieval period (cf. Otte, ii. 24-25). In the Greek Church of the Middle Ages, Church and art are even more closely connected, and the influence of the Church was greater. The freedom of art, in so far as it was taken into the ecclesiastical service, was more limited, but the current assumption that dead formalism and conventionality ruled in the Byzantine Church is an error. There was a glorious revival in the ninth century. The iconoclastic controversy had a destructive influence, but its outcome is proof of the inseparable connection of art and Church.

3. The Renaissance.

The Renaissance brought a change. As it emphasized the rights of the individual and called for independence and personal responsibility, so it delivered art from ecclesiastical domination and tutelage. Free apprehension of nature took the place of the former more or less conscious dependence on tradition (J. Burckhardt, Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, Leipsic, 1885; idem, Geschichte der Renaissance in Italien, Stuttgart, 1890). In Michelangelo this freedom comes out the grandest. The Church itself, carried away by the powerful stream of the new culture, was first moved by it without reflection, but its true ideas characterise not so much the Renaissance popes, Julius II. and Leo X., as an Adrian VI. Hence the disenchantment which soon followed.

4. Since the Reformation.

With the restoration of Roman Catholicism after the convulsions of the Reformation, commences the renunciation of the free art of the Renaissance and a return to the ecclesiastical ideals of the Middle Ages. Romanticism strengthened this impulse by similar tendencies, and modem ultramontane Roman Catholicism carried it out to the utmost. The inability of Roman Catholic ethics to appreciate the phenomena of the secular life influences also the judgment of the Church of Rome on the essence and purpose of art. It regards secular art as on a lower level than ecclesiastical. Protestantism, on the other hand, continues the conception of the Renaissance. The standards of valuation of a work of art are not to be taken from dogmatics and ethics, but from the character of art itself. No fundamental difference between secular and religious art is recognised. With this the possibility of an unlimited, free relation between Church and art is obtained. The two branches of Protestantism are here in perfect agreement. They perceive in art something which is permitted to the Christian as the use of secular culture in general. But the two confessions differ in that the Lutheran Church not only opened its houses of worship to art but asserted for it therein a necessary place; whereas the Reformed Church, strongly influenced in its ethics, as in other respects, by an Old Testament legalistic view, excluded art as much as possible from the culture and religious service in general. From this Protestantism has wrongly been suspected of being an adversary of art. But this rigor has been somewhat weakened, or wholly abandoned in modern times. From the position of Protestantism toward art follows its perfect independence of the ecclesiastical tradition. Much as it demands a religious and ecclesiastical art, it abstains from laying down canonical enactments with reference to its development, while constantly and properly insisting that such art shall be really promotive of its avowed lofty purpose.

Victor Schultze.

Bibliography: J. C. W. Augusti, Beiträge zur christlichen Kunstgeschichte, 2 vols., Leipsic, 1841-46; A. N. Didron, Christian Iconography: or, the History of Christian Art in the Middle Ages, transl. from the Fr. London, 1851; A. Lenoir, Architecture monastique, Paris, 1852; C. J. Hemans, History of Ancient Christianity and Sacred Art in Italy, Florence, 1866; idem, History of Mediæval Christianity and Art in Italy, vol. i., Florence 1869, vol. ii., London 1872; F. Piper, Einleitung in die monumentale Theologie, Gotha, 1867; W. Lübke, Ecclesiastical Art in Germany during the Middle Ages, London, 1870; R St. J. Tyrwhitt, Art Teaching of the Primitive Church, London, 1872; H. Otte Handbuch der kirchlichen Kunstarchäologie des deutschen Mittelalters, 2 vols., Leipsic, 1883-85; A. Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art, 2 vols., Boston, 1886; M. Stokes, Early Christian Art in Ireland, London 1888; J. von Schlosser, Schriftquellen zur Geschichte der karolingischen Kunst, Vienna, 1892; idem, Quellenbuch zur Kunstgeschichte des abendländischen Mittelalters, Vienna, 1896; E. L. Cutts, Early Christian Art, London, 1893; V. Schultze, Archäologie der altchristlichen Kunst, Munich, l895; F. X. Kraus, Geschichte der christlichen Kunst, 2 vols., Freiburg, 1896-1900; W. Lowrie, Monuments of the Early Church, New York, 1901; E. M. Hurll, The Life of our Lord in 307Art, with some Account of the Artistic Treatment of the Life of St. John the Baptist, Boston, 1898; T. Beaudoire, Genèse de la cryptographie apostolique et de l’architecture rituelle, Paris, 1903; A Michel, Hist. de l’art depuis les premiers temps chrétiens, vols. i.–ii., New York, 1906; and the general works on Christian art and archeology.

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