This week Robyn and I were able to visit The Art Gallery of South Australia’s 2018 exhibition Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay. It is only the second time these selected masterworks by Manet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro and Monet have journeyed beyond Paris. Beginning in the 1850’s the art of French Impressionism changed European art with its innovative use of colour and composition. The exhibition is stunning, and I’m not the artist in the family.
But the visit to the gallery reignited conversations that emerged from the writings of Francis Schaeffer and others back in the 80’s about art and faith, art and worship, art and Christianity. In a fascinating book on art, Veith writes, “At its best, the Middle Ages produced great Christian art, reconciling form and content, integrating artistry and faith.” (G E Veith, Jr. State of the Arts)
It was Edith Schaeffer (The Art of Life) that would write: He (the artist) was made in the image of a Creator and given the capacity to create— on a finite level, of course, needing to use materials already created— but he is still the creature of a Creator. Calvin Seerveld would argue that art is worshipful by its very nature: “Art is a symbolically significant expression of what lies in a man’s heart, with what vision he views the world, how he adores whom. Art telltales in whose service a man stands because art itself is always a consecrated offering, a disconcertingly undogmatic yet terribly moving attempt to bring honour and glory and power to something.” (Seerveld, A Christian Critique of Art and Literature)
Artistry and faith witnessed in works like that of the Dutch master Rembrandt and his final piece The Return of the Prodigal Son. The painting depicts that moment the prodigal son returns to his father in the Biblical parable. It is a celebrated work designated by art historian Kenneth Clark as “a picture which those who have seen the original in St. Petersburg may be forgiven for claiming as the greatest picture ever painted” (J I Durham, The Biblical Rembrandt: human painter in a landscape of faith)
Dutch-born Catholic priest, author and professor Henri Nouwen received permission to visit the museum which houses the masterpiece, and during the night after the museum was closed, Nouwen spent literally hours and days alone sitting in a chair gazing at the painting, studying every detail in hopes of discovering its spiritual reality. He then wrote a book based on his observations of that painting titled The Return of the Prodigal Son.
Interesting enough, the Scripture speak to the visual arts. Perhaps the most celebrated example is found in Exodus 35:30-35 in the context of the construction of the tabernacle:
See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic craftsmanship… Then Moses summoned Bezalel and Oholiab and every skilled person to whom the Lord had given ability and who was willing to come and do the work.
Gifted artisans creating works of beauty and design. Artistry and faith melded in the hands of the Creator.