What is liturgical art?

At its finest, Lutheran worship makes use of liturgical practices that have been handed down to us from the Apostolic age. The Liturgy is the formulaic rite of worship that includes centuries-old hymns, prayers, and scriptures, in order that "all things be done decently and in good order."1 During the Protestant Reformation, Luther and his colleagues were resolved not to jettison this jewel of the church catholic. Instead, they purged it of its abuses and retained its more ancient form. The Apology to the Augsburg Confession states,

We do not abolish the Mass but religiously retain and defend it. Among us the Mass is celebrated every Lord's Day and on other festivals, when the Sacrament is made available to those who wish to partake of it, after they have been examined and absolved. We also keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of readings, prayers, vestments, and other similar things.2

Broadly defined, liturgical art is any work of art that pertains in some way to the rite of Christian worship. This may include the altar, furnishings, vestments, candles, banners, and other ritual objects, and the architecture. All of these play some role in the divine worship service. Because the function of Christian liturgical art is tied to divine worship, it shares in the same purpose as worship—that is, to focus the worshipper on God's gracious interaction with mankind.

Simply put, liturgical art is a tool for communicating divine truth. It can convey the affliction of sin and the comfort of grace in powerful and memorable ways. Liturgical artwork can be a visual sermon, a parable in pictures, and a catechism for the eyes. It engages more of our senses, and in that way offers a deeper understanding of God's loving plan for humanity.

Liturgical art is a time-honored tradition much older than our Lutheran hymns. Its roots go back to the Old Testament, especially to the Tabernacle and the first Temple. In the New Testament era, Christians have been painting stories from scripture and symbols of faith on the walls since before they were building proper churches. In recent times, it has been widely held among Lutherans that liturgical art and other ceremonial trappings of worship are products of Roman Catholicism. Even if that were true, it would not for that reason alone be something to avoid. But the realitly is that liturgical art, like the Liturgy itself, is a product of the Holy Christian Church. Like any other gift, liturgical art can be abused, so we take special care that it is used appropriately and to the glory of God.

1. 1 Corinthians 14:40.

2. Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV.1, "The Mass".