Whose Art?

by Roberta G. Ahmanson, appearing in Volume 32

Was there an art committee for San Vitale in Ravenna in the sixth century? An emperor was coming—Justinian, who had recaptured this capital city from the Arian Ostrogoths in 540. An orthodox church, faithful to the Nicene Creed, was needed—one to match the brand new Hagia Sophia Justianian had built in the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. This Western building had to send two messages: first, Christ has two natures, fully God and fully man. Second, even an emperor takes second place to Jesus Christ, Lord of all.

Standing in that church today, one wonders just who figured it all out. The architecture is clearly modeled on Hagia Sophia. (Scholars agree the builders came from Constantinople.) The mosaic in the apse shows a young Christ in Glory (fully man) seated over the rainbow, presiding over the New Jerusalem, over all creation (fully God). Justinian and his wife Theodora—on a lower level—process toward Christ with the appropriate gifts. Side mosaics tell the story of salvation and the Trinity. All messages clear. In AD 547. 

In her book Visual Arts in the Worshiping Church, Westmont College art history professor Lisa J. DeBoer takes us inside the workings of today’s congregations as they make similar decisions about spaces where they worship. Of course, Christianity today is no longer one body in one Church as it was in Justinian’s time. So, DeBoer begins by outlining how the three major divisions of Christian believers approach the role of art in their worship—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant.

Describing the Orthodox, DeBoer focuses on their covenant with icons—icons being not art but what Russian scholar Alexei Lidov of Moscow State University calls “mediating images,” meaning that through them the saint is present to the faithful. DeBoer is also clear that when the Orthodox worship they understand themselves to be in the New Jerusalem that is both coming and already present. What is missing is that the Orthodox understand their church buildings to be three-dimensional icons of the Holy City to come, as Lidov has shown. Further, there is evidence that churches in Western Europe shared that understanding. According to urban historian Lewis Mumford, Augustine’s City of God shaped the design of European cities into the thirteenth century.1 Christians were understood to be pilgrims on earth with their ultimate citizenship in the City of God, and they modeled their cities on that perfect city. One other issue DeBoer does not address is the meaning of architecture to the Orthodox. For example, Orthodox churches insist on having a dome. Why? Ask their theology.

For the Roman Catholic Church, DeBoer looks mainly at the findings of the Second Vatican Council and subsequent documents. She concludes that for Catholics the focus is on the liturgy and the Eucharist and the consequent importance of the congregation as the Body of Christ. Communal worship is, therefore, more important than individual devotion, one of the pre-Vatican II practices that drew particular criticism. What that means for the arts, according to DeBoer, is that the focus is on worship spaces and liturgical furnishings, things essential for communal worship. Paintings and sculpture can distract from corporate worship. The need to apply these guidelines has given birth to the profession of liturgical consulting, something DeBoer laments because it often leaves local artists out of the equation.

For Protestants, she argues, the arts take cues from the art world in which we live—drawing from the post-Enlightenment idea that Art is “nonutilitarian, disinterested, and autonomous.” Training available in our public arts education programs and the workings of the art market economy embed that notion in our thinking. With Protestant diversity ranging from old mainline churches to warehouse post-Seeker congregations, there are no other norms or guidelines to be found, especially in traditions stretching to Reformation iconoclasm. Unlike Catholic and Orthodox traditions, where artists working in the church are working in service of the Church, in Protestant churches the artist is autonomous and answers to his or her own standards—the artist leads the church, rather than serving it. DeBoer closes this section with a startling but, regrettably, probably true observation: “To the extent that Art in our current art system is believed by many [in Protestant churches] to both represent and call forth true humanity, it parallels the Catholic and Orthodox understandings of the Divine Liturgy.” Art as liturgy.

Throughout, DeBoer makes it clear that her goal is to map the present geography of how the arts function in churches in order to help congregations think through the needs of their own meeting places. In that goal, she certainly succeeds. The second section of her book deals with how questions of ecclesiology and of the contemporary art market impinge on local congregations. For example, how do the arts function in a church called to be both local and universal? Or, looking at the art world, are artists to be servants of the congregation or autonomous consultants working according to their own vision? Beyond that, do the arts shape the church or do the teachings of the church shape the arts? Carefully, DeBoer compares and contrasts responses in each tradition. All of this is aimed at the contemporary church.

This approach is helpful and no doubt needed, but a deeper consideration of theology and history is a crucial dimension. Architecture is touched upon, but not in depth and not with a historical or theological perspective. Art historian Elizabeth Lev has pointed out that the first churches built after Christianity became legal in 313 were designed with a clear theological message about the Nicene teaching on the two consubstantial natures of Christ. The outside was common Roman red brick—fully man; the inside was glorious with mosaics of gold, red, green, and blue—fully God.


Whoever was on Bishop Maximianus’s design committee in 540s Ravenna, San Vitale conformed to that idea.