“That’s very interesting. I’d love to see it.” So the conversation turned.
We had been discussing many things: politics, weather, where to find the best enchilada, cigars, the pros and cons of various pieces of motorcycle gear, books read, things written, and finally my vocation as a pastor. This last topic, naturally directed our exchange toward where I am privileged to serve as a pastor: Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Fairgrove, Mich.
To be a pastor of that church is a great blessing and bestows upon me many privileges. Near the top of that list is my being able to discuss the artwork that graces the walls of that Holy Place where God Himself comes to be among His people. The artwork, which is simple house paint on plywood (to ensure durability), is in a word: sublime. The artist, Mr. Edward Riojas of Our Savior, Grand Rapids, based this work on the Martin Schalling Hymn Lord Thee I Love with All My Heart (Lutheran Service Book, 708). ‘
“And then from death awaken me
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
My Savior and my fount of grace,
Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end.”
(LSB 708 vs 3b)
Known as The Resurrection Polyptych, the artist uses color and scale to capture the essence of the hymn and Revelation, Chapter 7. It is beautiful, and it is big. The piece consists of several panels that begin in the Narthex, extend along the wall from the entrance of the Nave to the Chancel, and end behind the Altar with three panels depicting the Holy Trinity (Jesus being the largest and closest to the Altar). The work simply takes one’s breath away, because the artist has immersed you in it. Those who encounter it for the first time are at first awe-struck by its size and beauty and then, almost universally, reach for their cameras (yes, we have found a salutary use for cell-phones in church). The artwork communicates visually what takes place during the Divine Service. It is, if you will, a window into heaven.
The Purpose of Art in Church
That’s what art, especially church art, is supposed to be. Art translates realities that are often not easily defined into a realm that can be captured by our senses. How wonderful that the reality of the saints enjoying the unending feast of the Lamb is depicted for us as we partake of that same Lamb in the foretaste of the feast to come. How powerful it is to be able to explain to visitors that what we celebrate here results in just that: Saints who, with joyful eyes, see the Son of God’s glorious face.
Art has been used in this way for a very, very long time. Do you remember the carved Cherubim over the Mercy Seat and the carvings which adorned Solomon’s Temple (2 Chronicles 3 and 4)? Art communicates complex truths in a way that language cannot.
Well Done Art Teaches
Unfortunately, all too often, art is an afterthought in churches. It can be expensive. Art can be subjective and contentious. Churches with budgets already stretched thin are often left with blank off-white walls ready to be filled with a potpourri of well-intentioned but disunified pieces. As time passes, the blank walls are slowly covered with individually selected pieces that are ill-equipped to reflect the glory of what occurs in the Sanctuary. On the other hand, well done art communicates. For centuries illiterate people learned, in part, by what they saw on the walls of their churches. You may recall the great altarpieces, carved pulpits and reredos, and walls covered with scenes from the life of Christ. We readily board airplanes to see such things. Many of our churches were once painted with images of the Holy Spirit overhead, or with angels poised above the Altar heralding the One who brings peace to His people on Earth. These angels remained proclaiming God’s glory until modern sentiments covered them with the ubiquitous off-white. Well done art is one of several sensory elements that reflect the reality born by the Word and grasped by faith (which is why we do, and should, obsess about things such as hymnody).
Well done art teaches. What do these symbols represent? Why did the artist (or hymn writer) include that item (or use that word)? Art begins discussion. Art extends discussion. Art invites thoughtful reflection. Art invites study. Any serious art student must study the religious art of past ages, just as any serious musician must study the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. So powerful was Bach’s musical proclamation of the Gospel that in circles he is called the “Fifth Evangelist.” Art of the church that is well done confesses (as in the case of Bach’s music, which is without parallel in its beauty, power, and confession of Christ). The artwork that adorns the walls of Grace is clearly and powerfully Christian. Although I cannot see it from the perspective of an unbeliever, so clear is its confession in paint that I cannot fathom how anyone could interpret it as anything other than Christian. The deeper you look into the elements of the images, the deeper you are drawn into the truth of Scripture. We are able to “read” the walls that point us clearly and beautifully to Jesus Christ—the Word Incarnate, the Word made manifest, the Word made alive in flesh.
“Come see our artwork.” The conversation continues. Not everyone comes. But everyone, when the conversation turns to art, hears of our polyptych (series of four or more panels). They also hear of what it represents—they hear of Who it represents. They hear of the Christ who gives life to the dead.
Isn’t that, finally, what this discussion is all about?
Share on Twitter
— Michigan LCMS (@miLCMS) September 5, 2014
(photos courtesy of Edward Riojas, The Bay City Times/Mlive.com Archive)