Visual Education

GiottoLet me say up front that I possess at best a layman’s knowledge of art. Please, feel free to offer correction or clarification. I’d appreciate the help.

I spent two weeks in Tuscany this fall, and saw a lot of religious art. Some was extraordinarily beautiful (Botticelli) and some magnificent (Michelangelo); some, in parish churches or small chapels, was very ordinary. But the ordinary had a function just as much as the magnificent. It’s that function I want to comment on.

Churches are everywhere in Italy, and within the churches, so is art. Every church, large or small, rich or poor, had art, and the purpose of the art was instruction. Worshippers were mostly illiterate, and even for those who could read, no Bibles were available. The art was their Bible. Many of the churches I visited were so crammed with art you could spend days, perhaps weeks, studying all the paintings, frescoes, windows, statues and mosaics.

They had a kind of curriculum. At its cornerstones are certain scenes revisited again and again: the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, Mary and baby Jesus, Mary crowned Queen of heaven, the Last Judgment. There is also, less frequently: Adam and Eve, the Holy Family, the visit of the magi, the slaughter of the innocents, the pieta, the burial of Jesus. Many other biblical stories and many saints, prophets and apostles are portrayed. (For a quick refresher, google “Italian religious art” and click on “images.”)

Even if you know your Bible well, it’s not always easy to decipher who is who, but there are little tricks. (John always has a hair garment; Peter gets keys, and so on.) I assume that in those days before trains or cars, most people were familiar with only one or at most a handful of churches. Priests or nuns or parents explained the art to them. Worshipers grew up knowing who was pictured in their church as well as modern church-goers know where to find the Psalms in their Bible.

Two other elements pervade the paintings and make them difficult for modern people. One is invisible elements made visible. There are many angels, big and small, and not just the few that you find in the biblical stories. There are sometimes demons, too. Doves and other symbols signal the Holy Spirit. Haloes around the heads of some (not all) the godly people suggest an invisible but powerful sanctity. Add to that, there are often people in the paintings and mosaics who don’t belong there, historically speaking: popes and prophets and saints who lived hundreds of years later or before the events pictured. Sometimes the artist himself is there.

That is the second element: the obliteration of time. Renaissance art witnesses to real, historical people. These are not symbols or fantasy figures, but human beings, like us. Yet, time does not seem to be a barrier. Popes and princes and donors witness the crucifixion or worship Jesus in the manger. They could not be there, historically speaking, but in faith they are.

By faith I mean “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” The people who worshiped in those churches saw no angels. Nobody they knew sported a halo. Most of them were farmers or tradespeople, who lived by material facts. Why, and how, could they believe anything beyond what met their eyes? They needed faith.

The art is meant to help them grasp the unseen–that angels and demons are all around, that popes and prophets are witnesses, that the court of heaven hangs just over their heads. When they enter the church (as they do, week by week) they encounter an interpretation of reality that expands their vision and touches eternity. Did everyone believe? Of course not. But some did. Without the art, would anyone?

And we, who have no such art in our churches: what do we believe?


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5 Responses to “Visual Education”

  1. Ron Atkinson Says:

    Wonderful Tim! Have a Blessed Christmas Season!

  2. lindaroseuk Says:

    Lovely, really enjoyed reading that! 🙂

    Thanks Tim

    Best wishes


    Sent while Mobile


  3. Mindy Says:

    Yes,I think even without the art…even with only Latin worship … some would still believe. I’m so grateful the art exists, though! And thank you for helping me see what you saw. I never thought about time in those picturing that way. Thank you

  4. danaames Says:

    Tim, I don’t know if you know that there is a great example of Byzantine architecture and fresco art in Santa Rosa: St Seraphim of Sarov Cathedral (Orthodox Church in America) on Mountain View Road. It’s my parish; I landed there after growing up Catholic, becoming Evangelical in college, and finally spending my last 9 years as a Protestant at the Presbyterian Church in Ukiah (I met you & your wife there years ago).

    I still live in Ukiah, but would be happy to meet up with you and show you around. One of our parish feast days, of St Seraphim, is 2 January, an option if you’d like to come relatively soon and don’t want to miss Sunday at your church. Or go to the web site for contact info and get in touch with Fr Lawrence.

    The building is a jewel; the fresco art is being done by a monk who studied with one of the foremost iconographers of the 20th Century, Leonid Ouspenssky. Fr Lawrence’s wife also studied with him and has done most of the panel icons hanging on the pillars, etc. Everything in Orthodox Icons has theological significance, and also does not always accord with strict historicity. For example, the icon of the Nativity of Christ shows the Magi on the way, close to arriving, and we of course know they didn’t arrive until probably months after the birth.

    Anyhow, hope you come by. Happy New Year!
    Dana Ames

    • timstafford Says:

      Thanks, Dana,
      Yes, I’m familiar with St Seraphim, and had a wonderful tour of it some years ago with Fr. Lawrence. I was very impressed by his explanation of Byzantine art and its theological purpose. I need to visit again now that more of the frescoes are complete.

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