Holy Imagery: Restoring art as worship in the Protestant church

Christ in stained glass

‘As the afternoon sunlight struck the window, fragmented light pierced through the crucified figure on the glass panes and bathed the elements of the Eucharist the priest was distributing. Drops of blood emitting from the individual’s crude, thorny crown scattering crimson speckles beneath the wine, and the mutilated flesh of the Messiah was illuminated upon the loaf.’

An experience such as this would not be a privilege of the average Protestant’s ecclesial experience. For some, there is a desire in the Protestant custom to engage with more intrinsic means of connectivity through liturgical methods. However, there remains an obvious pattern of certain liturgical anxiety that the Protestant church has had towards things considered “tradition.” This is, more specifically, a tendency toward shying away from notions of spiritual formation regarding imagery and other senses. These concepts not only have the potential to edify the church, but also help bridge the gaps between practices and simultaneously educate laypeople on the historical significances of art in Church History. 

Due to the reconstruction of a portion of the church into Protestantism (after the Reformation), many practices of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition were essentially disregarded by the new branch of Christianity during the process of reform. To use a common saying, Protestants were all too happy to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” While there are many spiritual edifying benefits of incorporating liturgical imagery in Protestant worship, a stigma continues to exist in mainline Protestantism which must be addressed–a stigma surrounding the use of imagery as a form of worship in the life of the church. 

During the Reformation, the overreaches of the Catholic Church led many Reformers to a deconstruction of church theology. They sought to begin with a clean slate, solely relying on the authority of Scripture. As a repercussion, traditional Christian practices which incorporated even the slightest semblance of tradition were labeled “unessential,” “unbiblical,” and were largely thrust to the side in this new strand of Christianity. Unfortunately, this meant that Protestantism would become somewhat indignant about liturgical dynamics as well. Historically, the Church had been a supporter and proponent of the arts; however, “the new Protestants did not believe in fancy artwork and decoration” (Virginia Chieffo Raguin, Stained Glass). 

Many dynamics of the Catholic praxis were deemed as idolatrous by the forefathers of the Protestant movement; in their eyes, these practices took away from the focus on Jesus Christ alone. To an extent, the Reformers had a point. There certainly was an excess of extra-biblical teachings and doctrines circling the Catholic hierarchy at the time. Unfortunately, in an attempt to start anew, the Protestant tradition became hyper-phobic of anything remotely Roman Catholic. To a degree, the Reformation was vital in establishing the priesthood of all believers, salvation by faith alone, and many other important theological doctrines. In other areas, the Protestant movement may have discarded practices of great value which have contributed negatively to a lack of ecclesiastical involvement today.

The aesthetic and reverent environments of the Eastern Orthodox services and Catholic Mass are definitely foreign to Protestants. This lack potentially leads towards a certain stagnation in the church “experience;” the majestic sacredness that could be useful in teaching followers to fear the Lord properly is nowhere to be found in most Protestant communities. It is no wonder believers and unbelievers alike travel from all over the world to see holiness depicted in beautiful basilicas and cathedrals. There is a dramatic feeling of stepping into a very holy and sacred place which involves the human sense of sight and imagery into a collective worship. 

All things pertaining to artistic value engrained in humanity has been thoughtfully designed in the wondrous image of the Creator. There are parts of Him that He has bestowed unto humanity that shine through into every avenue of life. Thus, people have been given the highest privilege over every other created thing. Perhaps one of the most important texts for humanity’s own Biblical anthropology is found in the first chapter of Genesis: that of the Imago Dei. Genesis 1:27 is the pinnacle of the creation account, as it states, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” The reason this is so crucial for humankind is because it not only bestows us with a sense of why we operate as high functioning individuals, but it also imparts identity and personhood. 

It is true that, “If the word, ‘Maker’ does not mean something related to our human experience of making, then it has no meaning at all” (Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker). That is why it must be extended to a supreme Artist, the Maker of makers who can make something out of nothing, and limit it to beings who must employ material tools already in existence. Evident in Gen 1:26-28 is a highly relational God, a royal humanity, a moral vision, and a vibrant taxonomy of earthly life that is placed in human care – all in an interconnected bond that is acknowledged throughout Scripture. This royal embodiment of the creator is what so sets humanity apart from the rest of creation. Along with that, God has given humans many of the same abilities to name, create, conjure up, or make significant and meaningful things. One look at the world today, we can see the plethora of ways that humanity has created and is constantly revolutionizing the way in which we learn, build, and think.

The Imago Dei is always an acting agent in the life of believers and they can understand the extravagant heritage in which they partake.  Those who are modeled on the divine are, in turn, to serve their king by modeling the divine to the world (Psalms 115:16). This can most definitely be done through believer’s thoughts, words, and actions, but oftentimes the church misses the literal meaning: to create as God created. This should drive the communion of saints to use their artistic giftings for the purpose of worship in order to elevate the minds of the congregation rather than a repression of their giftings. To act as though the Spirit does not engage with–or is somehow outside of–the experience of art (especially of that dedicated unto Him in liturgy) reinforces Gnostic thought and detrimental concepts of Him being “above” or “uninvolved” with such areas of human experience. 

As dutiful members of the larger body of Christ, it would be an outrage if people with great giftings (such as painters, architectures, psalmists) could not somehow use these things for the purpose of edifying the church. Yet that is what has seemingly happened in a majority of denominations of Protestantism, and it is vital that the church works to mend its mistreatment and harsh critiques of art in the past. Image-bearers must be affirmed in their God-given desires to create, and to be allotted time and resources to do so within the place of worship. This too, parallels the importance of the arts in placemaking: taking a space (a void with no significance) and fashioning it into a place (a specific location with layers of meaning and purpose). Walter Brueggeman helps make these distinctions saying,

“Space” means an arena of freedom, without coercion or accountability, free of pressures and void of authority. Space may be… characterized by a kind of neutrality or emptiness waiting to be filled by our choosing.”

Walter Brueggeman, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith

He continues by contrasting this with place, stating,

Place is space that has historical meanings, where some things have happened that are now remembered and that provide continuity and identity across generations.

This is important to recognize going forward and distinguishing whether or not imposing aesthetic sanctity onto a place of worship is truly necessary.

Looking at the Old Testament texts, it is clear that the Lord had very specific blueprints for His people to follow in the building of the Tabernacle. God told Moses, 

And this is the contribution that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, goatskins, acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones, and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breast piece. And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.

God was extremely explicit in defining the exactness of how He wanted His tabernacle constructed, down to the very colors, materials, and furnishings. His preciseness was both, an empowering way to let His people implement their creative abilities while also a call to obedience. Scripture testifies to the same precision that generations had to implement overtime with the construction of the ark, the building of the temple, and many others. 

The argument against this might be to claim that under the New Covenant, the Lord is more concerned with His people much more than any ornate sanctuary, to the point that it is simply irrelevant. However, the ideologies and design of both the Imago Dei and placemaking, though instituted in the Old Testament, are transcendental–still relevant for the church today. Every individual is still made in the Imago Dei, and the role of placemaking is still upon the Church. Scripture tells believers today that they are metaphysically the “Temple” of the Holy Spirit. However, this does not tear away from the material manifestation geographically of the place of worship. If anything, it should inspire artists all the more to create, for the presence of the Holy Spirit is dwelling within them.

Additionally, just because the Lord doesn’t specifically command that Christians should construct elaborate places of worship, it is not synonymous to the claim that He doesn’t want us to do so. Jennifer Allen Craft expands on this statement: 

God calls us to make places fitting for divine dwelling and community to occur, and while this can be actualized in a strip mall, to negate that the visual matters at all seem naïve not only to the makeup of human embodied experience, but also to the history of Scripture and the church as it records instances whereby people seek to make places that communicate the divine in the best way possible by marking out sacred spaces. 

Jennifer Allen Craft, Placemaking and the Arts: Cultivating the Christian Life

The Protestant tradition must recognize its call to make sacred space and learn how to implement better liturgical practices by fostering healthy ecumenism between other Christian traditions. Indeed, there are blind spots and areas of practices that have not been adopted for good reason, but regarding a sanctity of placemaking and imagery in the sacramental discourse of the church, Protestants must learn from their brothers and sisters why these teachings matter so much. To glean more on imagery, it is vital to understand the background in visual arts’ purpose in the church altogether.

Today the term liturgy is applied to the public worship of the Church and is generally distinguished from private worship which occurs outside of the official community of the church. Or as the ELCA has mentioned in their statement on Worship Formation and Liturgical Resources, “Through our bodily senses, we become aware of who we are in relationship to the world around us. These senses work in relationship, deepening our connections with God, one another and the earth.” The Scriptural basis of this can be seen in 1 Corinthians; “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.”

Liturgy then, is something experienced through our senses: hearing, tasting, seeing, smelling, and touching. Though each one of these play an important part in an experience of worship and uplifting the body, the focus will specifically be set upon the liturgy of sight. When one sees the architectural beauty of churches, their eyes tell them that we have entered a sacred place. There is the formality of the edifice and the orderly ranks of pews, that speak to a certain structure and discipline as well as art that creates an environment of awe and majesty in the worship place of the Father. Various ornate statuary and the Stations of the Cross elicit the faithful lives lived by the saints, the purity of Mary, and the God-man: Jesus, who came to decimate sin. The crucifix is seen as a poignant reminder of the ultimate price that Christ paid for sins of the generations past and future. All these images represent important aspects of the Christian life and journey and contribute to a holistic picture of Christian history, past, present, and future.

Liturgy contributes to a part of the intricate fabric of church creativity and engagement with the arts. With such a gifting as this, it is quite clear that only through the praxis of the image of God that a placemaking quality can be conceived. It is also for the purpose of enlightening the church, both literally and figuratively. It is to bring the members’ attention up out of the pews and fixate their minds on the Cosmic possibilities. To use stained-glass as one example, this art instills a ‘sacredness’ of space that totally transforms the mind of the believer. It is employing both what man has made (glass) and what God has made (light) and fusing them together into a beautiful union; the Father and His children, creating something significant together.

As is apparent, liturgical practices help illuminate the senses and experiences of spiritual engagement for believers. However, in the Protestant church today, there seems to be no push toward these aspects of visual remembrance that implies a holy sanctity in the spacial sanctuary. The closest most Protestant ecclesias get to these traditions is some scripture on the walls of the sanctuary and the cross on the mantle behind the podium of the pastor. They might do well to reconsider the absence of other images of faith. The biggest problem with  imagery of the crucifix solely is it attests to the death of Jesus, transferring the memorabilia of the cross as the cornerstone of the faith for Christians. This is dangerous because it communicates theological undertones that relate to a Penal substitution view of the crucifixion, ignoring the union with Christ’s sanctifying life and resurrection. This could potentially undermine the Gospel by unintentionally implying that God the Son was merely the vehicle and sacrifice that humanity needed to be reconciled to God the Father. This does not spur Christians on to have a relationship in the Trinity as it pushes a distant-God agenda. However, picture the cross facing a parallel window depicting an intricate resurrection scene (Christ glorified, an empty tomb, etc.) on shades of lead lights? What a richer and stronger manifestation of proper Christology through liturgical imagery. 

The Protestant church might find it beneficial to heighten standards on artistic worth expressed in the church. What does this actually look like to revitalize this art and implement it into practice today? Speaking realistically to this issue, it is not fair to demand that stained glass or large icons be incorporated into every Protestant place of worship, lest they be judged for insincere devotion to the Lord. That is not the goal or purpose of this article. But instead, hopefully by commissioning the production of liturgical imagery into the place of worship for Evangelicals, it would also help strengthen the bond and address the tension the art world and the church have had for some time. 

The implementing of imagery in the Reformed church will overall accomplish four things: edifying believers with picture narratives, opening up the door for creativity to be explored in the church, educate the congregation on the important key figures in church history, and support ecumenism between Protestantism and other denominations in the global community. In closing, may the universal church set their minds on Psalms 133:

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing – life forevermore.

A prayer for unity

Lord, may the universal Church seek unity with one another, correcting or implementing that which is sanctifying for the body. May we learn to be communal in our indifference. May we pursue deeper means of ecclesial enlightenment through liturgy. May we never cease to reconstruct our theology based on Scripture. Overall, may we honor you, Lord, by making disciples and serving you forevermore. Amen.

ZACHARY MASHBURN is a writer and co-founder at Worthwhile Theoglogy magazine.

Photo credit: Magda Ehlers

Previously published at worthwhiletheology.com