A Reformed Vision of the Visual Arts - part 2 - page 1

 


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From the Summer 2014 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

A Reformed Vision of the Visual Arts: A Conversation with Abraham Kuyper, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and the Word of God
Part 2 of a Two-Part Series on the Arts and Theology

by Connally Gilliam
C.S. Lewis Institute Fellow

 

he knowledge that John Calvin did not denigrate the arts comes as a shock to many people. But what truly astounds is the discovery that Reformed thought has, over time, become a great source of encouragement for the arts, including the visual arts.1 Implicit in Reformed thought’s radically beautiful understanding of grace—saving and common—and vocation, there are seeds that surprisingly perhaps have blossomed into an aesthetic vision offering amazing artistic freedom and creativity. And this vision is worth a long and lingering look.
  Until the time of the Reformation, the visual arts were essentially the handmaiden of the church. Christian saints and scenes, princes and popes—these were almost always the subject matter of the visual arts. One need only walk through the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence, Italy, for proof. Madonna and Child by Duccio . . . by Cimabue . . . by Giotto. The list goes on. And even when the subject was an occasional Greek myth or such, paintings and sculpture were usually done through and for the institutional church or its wealthy patrons. Thus most visual art and the artists who received patronage lived beneath the umbrella of the church.2

A New Subject Matter

  Implicit in Calvinism, however, were at least two ideas that would lead to a new vision for visual arts. At the turn of the twentieth century, Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch prime minister and theologian, pointed to these in his famous essay, “Calvinism and Art.” He contended that the Reformed emphasis on grace, common and saving, was a key to artistic freedom. Common grace, God’s gifts “bestowed indiscriminately upon pious and impious” alike, was now celebrated.3 And creative or artistic ability, as Calvin had asserted, was one of those gifts.
  Thus Reformed thought opened the way for someone to stand outside of the people of God and produce truly valuable art work. After all, when Solomon built the Temple, he called on Hiram, king of Tyre (not a Jew), for help. And Hiram—in addition to supplying the wood for the Temple—sent along a master craftsman, Huram-Abi, whose ancestry was also questionable. But Huram-Abi was “trained to work in gold and silver, bronze and iron, stone and wood, and with purple and blue and crimson yarn and fine linen” (2 Chron. 2:14).4 He could create beautiful objects. Therefore, regardless of his religious or national affiliation, his work was celebrated.
  With this freedom for artistry to exist outside the church, there came a second freeing realization. God’s election by free grace comes to the least important or significant of people, regardless of status or capacity. As a result, everyday people and their lives became intrinsically valuable as subject matter. Kuyper put it this way:

If a common man, to whom the world pays no special attention, is valued and even chosen by God . . . this must lead the artist also to find a motive for his artistic studies in what is common and of every-day occurrence, to pay attention to the emotion and the issues of the human heart in it, to grasp with his artistic instinct their ideal impulse, and lastly, by his pencil to interpret for the world at large the precious discovery he has made.5

Perhaps this new freedom began to show most vividly in the change that occurred in Dutch art. Though many post-Reformation artists continued to use overtly religious subject matter (think of Rembrandt’s The Three Crosses), by the seventeenth century, a new realm had opened. Rembrandt could also paint a picture of an old pair of shoes. Vermeer could paint a picture of an everyday kitchen maid pouring water into a basin. Pieter de Hooch could paint images of a courtyard or bedroom. People everywhere were beginning to see the value in earthly as well as heavenly life. After all, not only has God given grace to common, mundane people, but even his saving grace validated this earthy world. The second Adam’s death justified God’s people. But Jesus’ life redeemed every aspect of true human existence.6 In the Word made flesh, the visible image of the invisible God intimately and experientially knew what it was to sweat, laugh, cry, and drink a little wine.7 Thus these things could be celebrated as worthy subject matter.

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