Why do we need liturgical art?

Confessional Lutherans take worship seriously, because we take doctrine seriously. Lex orandi, lex credendi: the rule of worship is the rule of faith. As the Church believes, so also she worships. The barrenness of many Lutheran churches today might lead one to believe that we worship a cold, impersonal, and distant god, rather than a loving, personal, and incarnate Savior. What are we to think about churches that preach a God of grace, but whose walls are brutal and dehumanizing?

Such was not always the case. The towns of medieval Europe erected churches of such beauty and grace that people still travel thousands of miles to gaze upon them for mere hours. The enormous artistic output of that "simpler" age dwarfs our modern accomplishments both in scope and in beauty. Artisans labored for decades—sometimes centuries—hoping their grandchildren might see their work completed. Each generation improved on the work of the previous: proportion, verticality, light, balance, energy... every aspect growing nearer to perfection.

The medieval artist saw beauty—even secular beauty—as having its roots in God. St. Augustine writes, "Those beautiful patterns, which through the medium of men's souls are conveyed into their artistic hands, emanate from that Beauty which is above our souls, which my soul sigheth after day and night."1 As the beauty of creation reflects the power of God, so the artist labors to reflect the beauty of Christ with the work of his hands. King David writes,

One thing I ask of the LORD, this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD, and to seek him in his temple.2

While there are many psalms that describe the wondrous beauty of creation, David expresses the believer's longing for a beauty that can only be found in God's presence. This yearning seeks relief from the everyday experience—a foretaste of heaven, a communion with God that occurs in a unique way in the divine service. God himself gave us a glimpse of this beauty artistically when he showed Moses the designs for the Tabernacle, and David his designs for the Temple.3In the millennia that followed, God's people have assumed that the beauty of his dwelling is indicative of his very presence.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Western culture began to abandon the idea of beauty as an objective reality. It now insists that beauty is simply a pleasurable impulse—a social construct in the mind of the observer. But the experience of beauty is so real, so universal, and so scriptural, that Christians must emphatically abandon this lie.4 Liturgical art is not a pursuit of pleasure, but a pursuit of divine beauty. It seeks to make the beauty of the LORD manifest in his sanctuary, so that the worshipper will come time and again, as David did, to gaze upon it, and to be transformed by it.

We do not come to the divine service, however, only to gaze upon beauty as though beauty were an end unto itself. We come primarily to be fed by the Word and Sacraments. In these are found forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, as the scriptures promise. We appropriately respond to these gifts with praise and thanksgiving. And although these too are worship, they are secondary. David could be moved to song by the beauty of an invisible God because God's acts of mercy were manifest to him. Christian worship is therefore concerned with telling the story of God's gracious actions to mankind. Beauty in art is a means to that end.

The altar, the font, the pulpit, the cross, and every painting, window, vestment, banner, and candle—even the church itself—are potentially vehicles for conveying the truths of scripture. Liturgical artwork attempts to translate the gospel into a phsycial beauty that can be seen and felt—not just heard. For nearly two millennia, the walls and windows of churches have served as catechisms for children and adults alike. Because of their usefulness in teaching the faith, the Book of Concord instructs that our traditions in worship—of which art is included—ought to be retained.5 Martin Luther espoused this belief also when he wrote,

Of this I am certain, that God desires to have his works heard and read, especially the passion of our Lord. But it is impossible for me to hear and bear it in mind without forming mental images of it in my heart. For whether I will or not, when I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart... If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it before my eyes?6

Liturgical art may express truth about God in two different ways: directly and indirectly. The overall beauty and order of God's house indirectly express what kind of God he is (just as creation does), but we must go further. A Hindu temple or a Muslim mosque may each exhibit profound beauty—but they speak only indirectly about God, and directly, of false gods. Liturgical art therefore is beautiful, but more than that, it draws on the Word of God to show as plainly as possible who God is and what he has done. The figure of a man hanging on a cross, for instance, leaves no room for ambiguity: God did this for me.

Although the decades-long decline in sacred art has affected every church body, it seems to have affected Protestants the most. Any attempt to thwart the barrenness of our churches in past decades has taken cues from Modernist idioms—resulting in much art that is ugly and meaningless. If we would but nurture an authentic artistic culture in our Lutheran churches, our members would be spiritually fed and transformed by what Dana Gioia describes as a "vision of redemptive beauty in a fallen world"—a beauty that expresses what God has done for us in Christ Jesus.7

But art is costly. Pragmatic Lutherans consider it a luxury that can readily be foregone. Artistic excellence is often pitted against the gospel ministry or social needs, as though they were mutually exclusive. The miserly attitude bears no resemblance to the Israelites who gave so freely to the construction of the Tabernacle that Moses had to instruct that the offerings cease!8 Addressing those who consider sacred art a "trivial affair," artist James Langley writes,

Adding to this is a kind of ingrained cultural utilitarianism that is offended — much like Judas! — by what it perceives as the 'conspicuous waste' represented by the investment in a higher standard of sacred art for the Church. They believe they are taking the moral high road by saying, 'It could have been spent on the needy!' We must never forget that [Christian] art, architecture, and music are all, in their own way, that precious perfume poured out by Mary, sister of Lazarus, upon the head of Jesus.9

When we hear the church talk about Christian stewardship, it is usually framed in the context of monetary blessings. But God expects us to exercise stewardship of our talents, as well. Artistic skill is a divine gift, determined by God for a specific purpose. This is exemplefied beautifully in Exodus 31:

Then the LORD said to Moses, 'See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri... and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze... And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you.'10

How profoundly encouraging it is for the Church to read this passage! God singled out Bezalel by name, placed his Spirit upon him, blessed him with skill and ability, and set him to his work. Moreover, God determined that it be recorded in the Holy Scriptures for our benefit. It is clear from Exodus that the calling to devise liturgical art for his House enjoys a special blessing from God. Our Lord’s determination to reach all our senses includes the beauty of sacred art.

Moreover, the gift of artistry is still given today; it was not a one-time occurrence. This has far-reaching implications for Christians today. Gene Veith writes,

If the perception and creation of beauty are gifts of God, it follows that the proper use of the arts is a matter of stewardship. Any of God's gifts can be used or abused. They can be twisted into sin; they can be buried in the ground; they can be multiplied. We dare not despise art. If God gives us artistic talent, we are obligated to develop that talent.11

Artists feel this obligation acutely; however, the Lutheran church as a whole does not. As Lutherans, we have not nurtured an environment that treats all vocations with dignity. We have tended to rank vocations by their perceived usefulness. Essentially, the eye has said to the hand, "I don't need you." As a result, many artists have withdrawn their gifts from the church and have sought acceptance elsewhere.

Why this waste? Should the church sit naked in the dust, when God has given to her those capable of clothing her in beauty? Why has a church so eager to share the gospel passed by so many opportunities to adorn her sanctuaries with symbols of faith? The account of Bezalel should cause in us a reawakening, for it is written for God’s people—believers and the gifted artists who clearly hear their calling. It is time for us to recognize the damage that has resulted from our abandonment of the arts, and to actively nurture the artistic tradition of the Church. As St. Paul says, "Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them."12

Why do we need liturgical art? Because the Church yearns to reflect the beauty of her Lord, because that beauty is useful for teaching the faith and feeding the faithful, and because it is our responsibility as stewards of his gifts. By using this gift as it is intended, Lutherans stand to gain a more complete vision of divine beauty, a deeper love and understanding of their Savior, and a more unified body of believers for generations to come. Our Lord has placed this accountability upon us. Bezalel foreshadows the call for today’s skilled artists to carry on what is desired, called out and instructed by Holy Writ.

1. Augustine, Confessions, sect. 34, in Basic Writings of St. Augustine, ed. Whitney J. Oates (New York: Random House, 1948), 1:174.

2. Psalm 27:4 (NIV).

3. Exodus 25:40; 1 Chronicles 28:19.

4. Dana Gioia, "The Great Divorce: Catholicism and the Arts," Napa Institute, September 9, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJHS4mPyHjU, at 10:45.

5. See the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XV, "Human Traditions in the Church," and Article XXIV, "The Mass".

6. LW 40:99-100; WA, 18:83.

7. Gioia, "The Great Divorce," at 11:35.

8. Exodus 36:3-7.

9. Benjamin D. Wiker, "The Redemption of Catholic Art," Catholic Culture (November 2005), http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=6853, under "Salt without savor?"

10. Exodus 31:1-4, 6 (ESV).

11. Gene Veith, State of the Arts: from Bezalel to Mappelthorpe (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991) 233.

12. Romans 5:12 (NKJV).