When Christianity Shaped the Arts

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Christians today often talk about influencing the culture through the arts. This often means, in practice, Christians letting themselves be influenced by the culture through the arts. In the seventh century, though, we see Christianity as a powerful imaginative and aesthetic force, inspiring new and enduring art forms, styles, and artistic creations. 

Evangelicals are often oblivious to artistic achievements of these pre-medieval days, either out of uncritical acceptance of the “Dark Ages” over-generalizations or the assumption that the church of these times was compromising with the pagans they had evangelized. There were indeed theological problems in the seventh century, such as inordinate attention to the saints. But the worst corruptions of the church — the inerrant papacy, indulgences, the replacement of the Bible with Aristotelian scholastic rationalism, and the replacement of the Gospel with works-righteousness — all came later. 

The seventh century was not a time for compromising with paganism, but for battling it. Barbarian tribes were still sacking Christian communities. Northern Europe was still largely pagan, and a steady stream of missionaries faced martyrdom. And in the East and in Africa, Christians were beginning to be overrun by militant, jihadist Muslims.

But in the midst of wars, chaos, and social upheaval, the life of the mind and the life of the creative imagination were not just kept alive but were nourished and inspired inside the church, and in a way that would eventually win over and civilize the barbarians outside the gates. Today’s Christians would thus do well to emulate their seventh-century brethren as we today slip into our time of educational breakdown, cultural barbarism, and Muslim assaults — our own Dark Ages.

Christians cultivated the arts in two different contexts, though in remarkably similar ways. Western Europe was still living in the wreckage of the Roman empire, which had fallen two centuries earlier. Small tribal kingdoms — some Christian, some not — provided a measure of social order, though Charlemagne would not create a unified Empire and institute medieval Europe for another century. The Church was in a survival, missionary mode.

But in the East, the Roman Empire had not fallen at all. Rome’s Eastern capital, Constantinople, had mutated into the wealthy, powerful Byzantine civilization. Here the church, under the protection of the Byzantine emperor, was also wealthy and powerful.

The Byzantines were known for their magnificent, yet intricate architecture. From Greece and Rome, the Byzantines took columns and domes. From Asia, they took ornate decoration and circular space. But it was Christianity that pulled these elements together into a whole. 

Byzantine churches began to be built in the shape of a cross. In the center would be a dome over the altar, with transepts extending in right angles in four directions. Such a design united the linear Western architecture with the circular Eastern architecture. But at its heart is the profound symbolism of the Gospel, that people who come to worship God in the church can only do so in the cross of Jesus Christ.

In addition to this cruciform floor plan, which would later be adapted in the West in both the Romanesque and Gothic styles, the Byzantine churches were also filled with visual splendor. The interior of the high-vaulting domes might be adorned with pure gold. The floors might be mosaics with thousands of pieces laid in breathtakingly complex designs. And on the walls and the altar and nearly everywhere one would look would be icons.

Icons are stylized, nearly abstract, with thick lines sketching the figures, which are filled in with bright colors or gold. The eyes, though, are eerily deep, as if they are staring straight into yours.

Some of the greatest artistic achievements of the seventh century, however, were not among the Byzantines but among the beleaguered West. As monks copied out the Scriptures by hand, they adorned the Word of God with illuminations of astonishing beauty. (The greatest example of seventh-century illuminated manuscripts is probably the Lindisfarne Gospels, made in an English monastery.)

Even iconoclasts can appreciate the art of the illuminated Bibles, much of which is non-representational: intricately interlocking lines and labyrinthine shapes, orchestrations of colors and designs, fantasy figures and whimsical gargoyles that are images of nothing on heaven or on earth. But above all, the art of the illuminated manuscripts is simply calligraphy, a riff on the visual depiction of sounds and letters that is written language, a recognition that the greatest icon is the written Word of God, which consists of visual images of letters in all of their jots and tittles.

The seventh century was also important in the history of music. Gregorian chants are attributed to Pope Gregory, who lived in the sixth century, though this is probably incorrect, since the Gregorian chants we have date from the ninth century. But chant forms certainly developed through the seventh century. 

Chanting is simply a way to sing prose. The single melodic line is free of strict rhythmic and metrical requirements and can thus accompany any text. In the seventh century, this art form, again, arose in the church, whose worship, both in the West and in the East, included singing passages from the Bible. 

I myself appreciate those Reformed congregations that only sing the Psalms in worship. Those Psalms, though, have been paraphrased into a metrical form, with a regular rhythm and rhyme, so as to fit the strict structures of our more modern music. If they would use chant forms, they could sing the Psalms right out of the Bible. There is nothing intrinsically “Catholic” about chanting. Lutherans, as well as Anglicans, have been chanting the Psalms and other biblical texts ever since the Reformation.

The seventh century also marks the beginning of English literature. In 672, a monk named Caedmon composed and wrote down the first poem ever recorded in the language of the Angles; that is, Anglish. Again, it was a Christian poem, a hymn on the creation. Here, in a modern translation, is how English literature begins:

Now shall we praise the heavenly 
kingdom’s Guardian,
The Creator’s ability and His wisdom,
Work of the glorious Father.

English literature would take many turns, but it started, like the other art forms of the seventh century, with glorifying God.  

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