Ecumenical Aesthetics: a ★★★★★book review

Over the last few years, there has been a flowering of Christians of all stripes engaged in the visual arts. This has been a vehicle for shared communion between Christians of different ecclesial traditions—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. The Ecumenism of Beauty reflects the deepening and mutual dialogue across denominational lines. Each tradition brings their own peculiar emphasis and theological understanding to the arts.

ecumenism-of-beautyI’ll note my brief criticism from the outset: this book is missing a page with contributor bios. Maybe I am an odd duck, but when I pick up a multi-author volume, I always turn to the contributor page first. Often this only has where they were educated and their current position, but it helps me place their perspective, tradition and what each brings to a topic. Luckily a few of these names were familiar to me and a few paragraphs into each chapter, I knew, in general, what discipline and tradition each author were writing from. There was Timothy Verdon, the book’s editor and eminent historian of Christian, religious art, JérômeCottin and William Dyrness, both active in the theology of arts and culture, Vasileios Marinis, an expert in Byzantine iconography, artists Susan Kanaga and Filippo Rossi and Martin Shannon, an ordained Episcopal pastor and devotional author.

Verdon’s introduction sets the stage. He describes the difference between the classical Catholic and Protestant aesthetic, as depicted two 16th century paintings. Pieter Neefs the Elder painted Antwerp Cathedral full of ornate iconography, priests and parishioners and sacramental flourish.  Pieter Jansz’s painting of the interior of St. Odulphuskerk reveals an austere sanctuary where the pulpit alone looks grand. Verdon comments on how the interior of these two churches reflect the beliefs and practices of both Catholics and Protestants—Catholic belief in salvation through ecclesial signs and the solo Scriptura of Lutheranism (ix).

Protestant and especially Calvinists (enthusiastic iconoclasts that they were) are faulted for their lack of religious aesthetic. See, for example, Andrew Greeley’s Catholic Imagination (which in memory argued that everything beautiful created by Christians came from Catholics, whereas Protestants were just good at analyzing stuff). However the first two chapters of this volume expose how much this is a gross oversimplifiation. Cottin points out that Calvin had no problem with images, only images used as props for devotion (@) and he points to accomplished Western artists influenced by Calvinist culture (i.e Jacob van Ruysdael, Vermeer, Pieter de Hoock, Vincent Van Gogh) (9). Dyrness’s points out that Calvin’s concern about idolatry caused him to put a moratorium on religious imagery, but he asks “Why after 500 years, when Protestants are learning again from medieval practices—praying the labyrinth, practicing lectio divina, and embracing Igantian spiritual practices and retreats—are their worship spaces, and their corporate prayer, so often devoid of visual beauty?” (19) He argues that the time is ripe for an aesthetical recovery.

Kanaga, one of the artist contributors describes her life as part of the Community of Jesus, and her commission (along with sculpter Regis Damange) to design elements of the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, MA and discuss her art and practice. Kanaga sees abstract sacred art as the perfect vehicle to communicate the indefinite and the ineffible (31-32). Marinis’s chapter opens up the spirituality of Byzantine iconography with insights from Fotis Kontoglou 1895-1965) Rossi describes how visual art is an act of contemplation, especially for the artist in the creative process. Shannon’s chapter describes the physical space of the Church of the Transfiguration and the way beauty draws the eccumenical, Benedictine community into worship. Verdon’s closing chapter reflects on the interplay between Art and liturgy.

As this book focuses on the relationship between beauty and ecclesiology as I read I kept thinking of what historical theologians call the Medieval transcendentals: the true, the beautiful and the good. In an earlier time, these were all held in tension, as each reflecting something important about God. Evangelicals of the protestant tradition, my tribe, were suspicious of beauty as ephemeral and idolatrous, but we emphasized truth and goodness (and two out of three ain’t bad).  However, we are in the midst of a recovery of Protestant theological aesthetics and religious art. This book extends the dialogue between Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants, while honoring the differences and contributions of each tradition.

Appropriately this book is also beautiful, with full-color images on glossy pages. I think Rossi and Kanaga’s chapters were my favorite contributions, not only because they showcased their beautiful artwork, but because they reflected on their spiritual experience as artists. I give this five stars and recommend it to anyone concerned about art and the church—★★★★★

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