Scripture Engagement Through Visual Art
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Genesis 1:1 (NIV)
From the very first verse of Scripture, God reveals himself as the Creator, an Artist. Everything within the universe is a magnificent element of the Great Artist’s masterpiece. As works of art created in God’s own image (Gen 1:27), people are endowed with the ability to create as well. We can choose to join the Master Artist by being artists ourselves.
Throughout history, many artists have acknowledged God’s sovereignty and position as the ultimate Creator depicting in their work the accounts and truths which God has given to his people through the Bible. Virtually every biblical account has been visually portrayed at least once and usually many times throughout history and across cultures. In museums, galleries, churches, cathedrals, and homes around the world, such works of art are helping people gain a deeper understanding of the Scriptures.
Visual art, including stained glass, sculptures, and paintings, was incredibly important in Medieval times when most people were illiterate. The Bible was unavailable except to the very upper classes (who were more likely to be able to read), but by using the visual arts the biblical account was made available for everyone. Biblical art was known as biblia paupernum or “the Bible of the poor.”
Biblical images are not just for those who cannot read, however. Images connect with our emotions and can convey deep truths. Images can be powerful triggers to help us remember the stories and truths of the Bible. Jesus often used many varieties of figures of speech (e.g., parables, metaphors, and similes) to convey his message.
A good piece of biblical art can help us see the truth of a passage as well as give us “fresh eyes” for familiar passages. The artist becomes our companion who points out details of a passage that we might have passed over in haste. Biblical art from other cultures or time periods can be especially help us gain a fuller understanding of a passage that we are used to seeing through our own “cultural lenses.” Scripture engagement through art assists in our spiritual development by letting us share in the wealth of insights God has already given to others.
Since art is often complicated and takes time to understand, it requires us to slow down and helps us to meditate on a passage. In the presence of the Holy Spirit, the believer combines the resource of art and the inspired words of the Bible, allowing him/her to encounter the God of the Bible in a new way.
A Few Cautions
It is inappropriate to simply accept a piece of biblical art without discernment. All art portrays the artist’s faith and spirituality (because we are spiritual beings), so all art is in some way flawed (because humans are flawed). Though biblical art can help us to see more clearly what a passage is communicating, it is the Scriptures, as God’s Word, that are the ultimate authority.
Remember that biblical art, as a visual representation of the Bible, is not always rated “G.” The Bible is not a children’s story, so some biblical art contains nudity or bloody depictions of violence. Not all things in the Bible are beautiful and calming; many times biblical stories are full of distortion and dissonance. As such, biblical artwork will tell the full Story of God that includes creation, fall, and redemption, with each of its harsh realities. As in all of life, the believer is called to be discerning.
The artists in our churches are a gift from God who can help us to see truth. Scriptural artwork can be a powerful tool to help us reflect on the meaning of a biblical passage by slowing us down and allowing us to see the text in a new light.