The church has carried a love/hate relationship with the visual arts throughout its history with polarities swinging from the veneration of statuary to the destruction of all things that might even hint at idolatry. (This article is an excellent primer for more on this fascinating history.) My protestant roots tended toward the latter, causing me to cast a suspicious eye on any symbol, other than a cross (an empty one, mind you), gracing a sanctuary. My first exposure to “stained glass” was akin to what is pictured here; it certainly added some beauty to an otherwise plain space and offered a welcome distraction for a young boy with hints of ADD, but it dared not attempt to communicate something of significance.
This past Sunday I quizzed our solid, and often stolid, Southern Baptist congregation on the iconic representation of the four evangelists and, not surprisingly, they came up empty. By contrast, utilizing only verbal clues, they readily identified the significance of “a blue square with a lowercase ‘f’“. While we are fluent in the iconography of our modern culture we are largely, sadly illiterate when it comes to the rich and meaning-filled visuals that are part of our Christian heritage. Perhaps it is time for us to reconnect with our roots. I, for one, have come late to this treasure trove, and am moved by those who, in an uncertain and difficult world, invested time, treasure, and much creative energy into creating and sustaining the redemption story in visual imagery.
These four symbols have represented the four gospels across Christian history since the 4th century, and I have only recently become aware of them. There are various interpretations of the meaning attached to these images associated with the four gospel accounts. I turn to Jerome (A.D.347-420), known for his translation of Scripture into Latin, who describes these icons in the preface to his commentary on Matthew:
The first face of a man signifies Matthew, who began his narrative as though about a man: “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.” The second [face signifies] Mark in whom the voice of a lion roaring in the wilderness is heard: “A voice of one shouting in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The third [is the face] of the calf which prefigures that the evangelist Luke began with Zachariah the priest. The fourth [face signifies] John the evangelist who, having taken up eagle’s wings and hastening toward higher matters, discusses the Word of God.
Is there a place for the visual arts in sacred space? In our image driven society I believe it to be just as important as it was for the early church, perhaps more so. The ancient images are still telling a story to an illiterate people in our modern age. We need images that help us connect the redemption story to our lives. I am praying for a renaissance of Christ-centered, Christ-honoring art that will draw our eyes, and our hearts, to the salvation story. I am also praying that in revisiting the beauty and energy produced by those who have gone before us, we will be reminded of a beautiful redemption story worthy of telling in word, in song, in glass, in oil, and in stone.
Soli Deo Gloria.