The Christian and Art (pt. 3)
(Continued from The Christian and Art pt. 2)
The Fruitful Moment
Rembrandt used a fascinating technique whenever he painted his portraits, much like Michelangelo did when he created his sculptures. He used a technique later described by German philosophers (particularly Herder) as the “fruitful moment.” (The German word for moment means “the blink of an eye.”)
One of the problems that an artist must deal with is the question of how to capture the essence of a human personality in a single painting. Life is a process, it is dynamic. A sequence of many different events shapes and forms our lives.
For this painting, Rembrandt approached his work by reading the biblical account of Jeremiah. He immersed himself in the text of Scripture trying to gain a comprehensive understanding of the style and the movement of the life of the weeping prophet. He then got out his pad and began to sketch scenes. He sketched up to eighty scenes from the life of Jeremiah, all the while searching for that fruitful moment, that one moment in the life of the man that would, somehow, capture in freeze-frame the essence of his personality. In the painting of Jeremiah, one can see the pain etched into the lines on his forehead. The conflict between the light and the darkness that was so much a part of his life is evident. The disappointment and the frustration of the prophet are captured as his head has become too heavy for his neck to hold up. We can look at Rembrandt’s painting a thousand times and see something in it that we never saw before.
Michelangelo had the same approach. After drawing many sketches, he chose to depict David with stones in his hand. As we look at that famous statue, there is that sense of readiness, as if David were ready to spring into action.
The substance, depth, and thought behind the works of the masters gave their art an enduring value that far transcends the cheap, the boring, and the superficial.
The same can be said of the music of the great musicians. Does Mozart’s music ever go out of style? Does Chopin’s music ever get boring? Does Handel’s Messiah still move us when we hear the “Hallelujah Chorus”? Watch the national music charts each week as they record the most popular songs across the country. The songs rise and eventually fall in a matter of a few weeks. What was Number One this week may not be in the Top Forty six weeks later. Many of today’s songs are there for a moment and then they are gone. Great art, on the other hand, has the ability to persevere through time.
What Is “Christian” Art?
But what makes art Christian art? Is it simply Christian artists painting biblical subjects like Jeremiah? Or, by attaching a halo, does that suddenly make something Christian art? Must the artist’s subject be religious to be Christian? I don’t think so. There is a certain sense in which art is its own justification. If art is good art, if it is true art, if it is beautiful art, then it is bearing witness to the Author of the good, the true, and the beautiful. I think it is wrong for Christians to demand of their artists that they paint only themes which are overtly and directly religious. There is nothing wrong with religious themes, but the theme does not have to be religious to be “Christian.” In a sense, the subject matter of Christian art may be exactly the same as that of non-Christian art. The Christian’s goal, however, is to seek to express and capture the beautiful, the good, and the true.
This leads to the last issue that I would briefly touch upon: whether or not Christians need to be careful with the form of their art and not simply its content. Some theorists argue that the form of art is utterly neutral and that it does not matter what form art takes as long as we are careful of the content. I disagree with this. I think a Christian may use many different forms in his painting, but we need to be aware that sometimes the form of a painting itself is a part of the message. When formlessness or the chaotic is the structure of the painting, that, in itself, is a statement that reality is ultimately chaotic.
As Christians in the realm of art, our impetus for producing Christian art is a desire for excellence. That desire stems from the fact that the God who has ordained this world is the supreme example of excellence in all that is good and true and beautiful.
If we are to produce a new generation of Christian artists, we must stop stabbing young artists in the back. We must stop accusing them of being “worldly” and “unspiritual.” We must encourage Christian art—good art. Art is a form of communication. God Himself is a communicating God. He communicates to us both verbally and nonverbally. Our church services are marked by Word and sacrament. The sacrament contains forms of a nonverbal sort that communicate profoundly of God’s redemption. If we cut off the aesthetic element from our triad of virtues we are left with a truncated Christianity and a God who at best is dull, and at worst, is ugly.
This is the twenty-third and final part of R.C. Sproul’s book Lifeviews first published by Revell in 1986. In this series we are learning how Christians are called by God to make an impact on culture and society.