Table of Contents
Part VI: The Place of Art in
Just How Beautiful are Thy Courts,
WHEN I WAS taking
a course in anthropology at university, we had a professor who
1 of 7
opposed to everything connected with Christianity. His sarcasm
indeed added spice to his lectures and consequently he tended
to have quite responsive groups of students. At the end of one
year, I remember they gave him a "diploma" which, with
his name inscribed upon it, was presented to "the most popular
iconoclast". His approach had all the appearance of being
profound, but one had only to study last year's notes to realize
that it was atrociously repetitive -- jokes, anecdotes, snide
remarks, and all! He spent about two or three weeks of lectures
dealing with primitive superstitions and emphasizing that civilized
man had left these things far behind him. He added, "No
intelligent man in his right mind believes any longer, for example,
in the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
was too much for me. When he had paused for a moment, I put my
hand up and with some surprise he looked across the classroom
and said, "Yes?" I said with considerable trepidation,
though I hoped it didn't show, "Just to keep the record
straight, I do." There was no laughter, and the professor
looked down with a half-smile, then a minute later continued
After the lecture was over, a girl
came up to me who was the daughter of one of Toronto's famous
hockey players and said, "That was a very brave thing to
do." I was a little embarrassed. I suggested that it might
not have been a very wise thing to do. A moment later
another fellow came up to me and shook my hand warmly and told
me his name. He was a student from Leyden University and, as
it turned out afterward, a very devout Roman Catholic. Thereafter
we always sat together, and he became one of the most genuine
friends I've ever had. When I left the university at the end
of the year, he gave me a beautiful volume of photographs of
his own little church in Holland -- "little" in its
external dimensions, but breathtakingly beautiful in its proportions
and its adornment. The roof was marked by a long series of flying
buttresses on each side, and seated astride each one of these
buttresses were four or five life-sized figures. I am convinced
that they were real portraits, and they represented every conceivable
type of character who might in any way have contributed to the
building of this beautiful structure. There are photographs of
scores of them, most of them looking up to heaven in adoration.
Here are to be found the architect, the mason, the accountant,
the bricklayer, the rich man, the poor man, the young man, the
dying man, the musicians, those who prayed, the official recorder,
men, women, children, and even pets! One of them is evidently
a convict who somehow added his contribution. The building is
alive with the spirit of all kinds of people. Inside, the adornment
is continued with life-sized standing figures, and these too
were undoubtedly real people.
Despite this crowded company and
despite the fact that, according to my friend, the photographer
spent seven years at government expense taking these photographs,
there does not appear to have been any image of Christ. In this
I think the designers and planners of this house of God were
guided completely aright.
I am strongly persuaded, though
I know it is only a personal opinion, that it is wrong to seek
to create any image of the Person of the Lord. How can one know
what He looked like? We have no description in the New Testament,
and every attempt we make to create an image is invariably an
image in our own likeness. It is perfectly true that He was made
in the likeness of man, but of what man? Black man? White man?
have witnessed in recent years some remarkable and very sad illustrations
of this principle. The black novelist James Baldwin was quoted
in Time (8 July, 1968) as blaming the black man's plight
in relation to freedom on this kind of supposedly worshipful
portraiture. He said:
The Christ I was presented with,
though he was born in Nazareth under a hot sun, was presented
to me with blue eyes and blond hair; and all the virtues to which
I as a black man was expected to aspire had by definition to
is reputedly a Christian "prayer room" somewhere in
Jerusalem open to the public. On one wall is a beautiful frame,
but there is no picture in it. Underneath, apparently, are the
words "Whom having not seen, we love." It is possible
for any man of any race and any colour to see those words and
fill that frame according to his own sense of what is true of
the Lord. Surely this is appropriate -- and should be sufficient.
We are pampering the flesh with our pictures and being offensive
to three-quarters of the people in the world by our sentimental
Again and again one hears of people
of other cultures rejecting the message of the gospel, or at
least being prejudiced against it at first, because the Lord
whom we present to them is presented in the image of a white
man -- more precisely, a Nordic -- often with fair hair and blue
eyes. How wrong this practice is at heart.
In recent years, nativity scenes
have been painted by nationals in which the figures themselves
are all native. I have several which are African (with Negro
types), Polynesian (essentially Mongol types), and even a Chinese
"Last Supper". And though such pictures may come as
a shock to us they are fully as justified and as truthful as
our own. The Lord was the Son of Man, not the Son of an Indo-European
only. . . . The "only" is critical here, for
the Lord summed up in Himself all types of men, all colours,
all races -- all men. Although I cannot logically explain it,
I'm quite sure that in the melee of races present in Palestine
during our Lord's earthly ministry, people of all colours looked
upon the Lord with adoration and did not observe that He was
any different from themselves. This is a mystery, of course,
and such things cannot be set down in printed form successfully.
So while our endless reproductions of the Lord doing various
things, many of them beautifully printed and some of them truly
moving, satisfy our need for visual representation and stir our
imagination, these same illustrations are a stumbling block,
indeed a positive barrier, to people of other cultures whose
mental image of the Lord must be in terms of their own visual
enough, pagan philosophers as well as writers of more recent
times with no particular Christian convictions have been more
perceptive in this regard than the Christian public. For example,
the founder of the Eleatic School, a Greek institution of Southern
Italy, whose name was Xenophanes or Kolophon, made the following
observations: "Men imagined gods to be born, and to have
clothes and voices and shapes like theirs. . . . Yea, the gods
of the Ethiopians are black and flat-nosed, the gods of the Thracians
are red-haired and blue-eyed. . . . Yea, if oxen and horses and
lions had hands and could shape with their hands images as men
do, horses would fashion their gods as horses, and oxen as oxen.
. . ." (7)
Herbert Butterfield, the Cambridge historian, quoted
a marvelous little poem by Rupert Brooke about the kind of heaven
fishes must be looking for! (8)
. . . somewhere, beyond Space and Time,
Is wetter water, slimier slime
And there (they trust) there swimmeth One
Who swam ere rivers were begun,
Immense, of fishy form and mind,
Squamous, omnipotent and kind;
And under that Almighty Fin
The littlest fish may enter in.
Comment is hardly
necessary. In a paper by Grant Reynard entitled, "Christian
Art: A Painter's View," the habit of identifying images
of God with ourselves is again underscored. The author wrote:
Then there are the great painters
of Italy -- the primitive authority of Cimabue and Duccio, passing
into the early Giotto and Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesa
with the coming of tenderness into Christian art without loss
of strength, and moving on through Mantegna, Masaccio, to Michelangelo,
Titian, Raphael, Veronese, who portray the gamut from the Christ
of humility to the regal, lordly Christ of the Venetians; the
portrayals of the crucified Lord, the depositions, the pietas
of early French painting, northward to the superb Flemish Van
Eycks, Rubens, and the Germanic Albrecht Durer. All these almost
countless delineations of the Savior bear the stamp of nationality.
The Italian, French, Flemish, and German painters make Him one
of them. El Greco, despite his Greek origin and Italian training,
identifies Christ with a tortured Spanish school.
7. Koestler, Arthur, The Sleepwalkers,
Hutchinson, London, 1959, p.24.
8. Butterfield, Herbert, Christianity and History, Bell,
London, 1950, p.118.
9. Reynard, Grant, "Christians and Art: A Painter's View"
in Christianity Today, 31 January, 1964, p.4.
Strangely, the Bible does not
describe in detail the Lord's physical appearance. Yes, He is
"a Man of Sorrows" and He weeps; His feelings are disclosed
but not His physical features. It is as though God desires that
we worship His Son for His Deity and His Saviorhood alone.
It is all too
true. We cannot conceive of God except in terms of ourselves,
and by the very nature of our limitations, by the term "ourselves,"
we mean our racial type -- including skin colour.A few years
ago a tremendous stir arose in the United States because of the
utterances of a rather short, stocky, black man who called himself
Father Divine. Whether he really believed in himself or not is
hard to say, but his followers certainly did. Most of his followers
were blacks, but not all by any means: and his wife was white.
That it should be so very difficult for most of us even to conceive
how anyone could ever imagine that God looked like that should
be a warning to us that the non-white world may properly take
the same attitude toward our representations of the Lord which
portray Him so utterly unlike themselves.
Ethnocentrism is extraordinarily
subtle in its influence. In the Song of Solomon, these words
appear in almost all English translations: "I am black but
comely" (1:5). In view of the fact that the Hebrew here
translated "but" is far, far more often translated
"and" elsewhere, it might be considered odd that the
rendering "but" -- with all the implications it bears
-- should be adopted in even the most recent translations (the
Revised Standard Version, for example). We introduce this disjunctive
particle because we find it difficult to think normally of anyone
being beautiful whose skin is so different from our own. What
beauty, therefore, can we really expect the Negro to see in the
Lord when we portray Him in our image? Or do we expect him to
have far greater spiritual understanding than we ourselves have?
The issue is not merely a cross-cultural one but even interpersonal,
for each of us inevitably creates his own mental image of the
Lord. This is a freedom we must be allowed. Thus it is disturbing
to see a Christian bookstore with ten or twenty vastly different
pictures of the Lord because each one, far from enlarging our
view of the Lord, is asking us to accept the artist's conception
Perhaps there are occasions when
some individual is helped by a particular portrait of the Lord,
but it seems doubtful if this is sufficient justification for
leaving the rest of the world with the kind of impression which
non-religious people tend to have, of a Person with very little
if any strength of character at all. The Christian message is
thus distorted and may even have objectionable connotations to
others, just as the idea of Father
Divine being a representation
of God appears objectionable to us -- not primarily because of
what he was but because of what he looked like.
For fear of misunderstanding
because of racial tensions which always exist between peoples
of different cultures and colours, I should like to restate exactly
what is meant here. We are so constituted that it is difficult
to seek the Lord without some kind of mental picture of the One
we are seeking. Such a mental picture must inevitably be in terms
that relate to our idea of what a perfect Person would not only
be like but also look like. Inevitably we envision someone
who is not greatly unlike ourselves. The man whose skin colour
happens to be black does precisely the same thing and with fully
as much justification. So our visual images naturally diverge
widely and it is impossible to say which one is right, if either.
But in the nature of things, we tend to accept our own vision
as the correct one and therefore the other man's vision as false.
Indeed, we may find his vision not only false, but shocking.
From his point of view, he may find ours equally so. Thus, while
we are seeking to worship the same Lord, we may find ourselves
completely out of sympathy with one another.
Not only the pictures but the language
we use can be a barrier. If we insist that everyone must read
Word of God in English because we are equating our particular
translation with the Word of God, then obviously we would be
doing a great disservice to the rest of the world. God must speak
to each man in his own symbols, even though it is the same Lord
and the same message. One of the extraordinary things about the
Word of God is its translatableness -- which certainly cannot
be said of the pictorial illustrations sometimes added to elucidate
There are some who question whether
any visual images are necessary or even helpful in enlarging
the truths of Scripture. Le Comte du Nouy said: (10)
Many men who are intelligent
and of good faith imagine they cannot believe in God because
they are unable to conceive Him. An honest man, endowed with
scientific curiosity, should not need to visualize God, any more
than a physicist needs to visualize the electron. Any attempt
at representation is necessarily crude and false, in both cases.
The electron is materially inconceivable and yet, it is more
perfectly known through its effects than a simple piece of wood.
If we could really conceive God we could no longer believe in
Him, because our representation, being human, would inspire us
10. Du Nouy, Le Comte, Human Destiny, Longmans
Green, London, 1947, p.134.
it is unquestionable that our representations of the Lord must,
in the minds of people of other cultures, often inspire more
doubts than faith. Indeed, one might argue that the making of
any kind of representation of God in graphic form is a tacit
acknowledgment of spiritual immaturity, a kind of "crutch"
to help the feeble-spirited. A pure symbol instead might
be more justifiable. A quiet chapel with a table instead of an
altar, upon which were the simple emblems of a cup and a loaf
of bread and perhaps a towel, would be much more telling in certain
circumstances than an illuminated statue of Christ, it seems
It has even been questioned whether
pictorial representation of any biblical event is really a gain.
P. T. Forsyth put it this way: (11)
Most of the art which we associate
with Scripture narrative only conspires with a thousand other
influences to petrify the Bible for us, to turn its dignity into
stiffness, its solemnity into pompousness, its sanctity into
mere decorum, its beauty into prettiness, its passion into sentiment,
its movement into a strut, and its radiance into tinsel. And
when we try to escape . . . we rush into the opposite extreme.
. . . We reproduce the exact conditions of life in
Palestine; but we only get the statue, we do not get the life
and soul. We transliterate but we do not translate.
has so multiplied the means for pictorial representation (cameras,
TV, modern printing methods) that we have become "imaginatively
lazy". Children still imagine, but they are not children
for as long as they used to be. Perhaps as children of God we
ought to get back once more to the exercise of pure imagination
where the subject matter is really spiritual. And get beyond
such picturings. Nevertheless, moderation in all things.
And I still believe that the beautiful
little church of my friend from Holland with its host of memorialized
worshippers must make one very much aware of the fact that the
worship of God has properly always been a most healthful exercise
among men in all walks of life, ennobling even the most ignoble
of them . . . also the convict on the flying buttress.
11. Forsyth, P. T., Religion in Recent
Art, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1901, p.77.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All
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