Primary menu

A Christian perspective on Art and Creativity

John Breadon's picture

We live in an audio-visual age, where art and creativity are valued highly in education, by society and by young people, and where public artists like Damien Hirst or Tracy Emin can make national headlines. In the Graeco-Roman period, when Jesus was growing up in an obscure province of the Empire, public art was primarily sculpture. There were statues of heroes, gods and the emperor in every public square and wall-paintings or mosaics on every public building.

The transforming power of art
What are our own most powerful memories of growing up? Many of our strongest images are of artistic experiences – whether it’s Shakespeare, or the School Nativity Play, Jay-Z or the Beatles, Star Wars or Avatar. When we talk about being ‘blown away’ by a performance, or about the ‘sublime’ or ‘out of this world’, we are acknowledging the power of art to transform our normal experience into something beyond our everyday lives.

Not in the Jerusalem that Jesus Christ knew, though! The Old Testament scriptures had recognised the power of art in the second of the Ten Commandments: ‘You shall not make for yourself any idol in the form of anything in the heaven above, in the earth beneath, or in the waters below; you shall not bow down to them or worship them.’ Some Jew interpret this strictly to mean any form of picture or sculpture, as do Muslims and even some in the early Church. Most Christians considered the prohibition to be about worshipping such images, rather than making them. Jesus certainly makes no negative comments about paintings or statues or any form of art. In most churches from the earliest days, there have been images of Christ, his mother Mary, the angels, apostles and saints.

Jesus’ response
In some of the comments Jesus made in the Gospels clearly favour a life which values beauty over a life of worrying about everyday practicalities. This is shown in Jesus’ response to the sisters Martha and Mary and when he welcomes the beautiful and expensive perfume which is poured over his feet. The traditions of adorning churches and shrines with flowers, with things of beauty ‘pleasing to the senses’, and of worshipping through incense, icons and singing, were an essential part of the appeal of Christian worship as it spread West throughout Europe and East into Asia. Many of the early churches adopted, and adapted, local traditions of art and music to create services and celebrations full of local colour, beauty and mystery.

Blasphemy has also been a concept which has run throughout Christian history, often in relation to the power of art to shock and subvert received ideas, or to challenge conformity to the structures of State and Church. The controversy over the Jerry Springer Opera, with its depiction of Jesus as a naїve baby, was a recent example. Some Christians always seem to rise to the bait and call for such displays to be banned, but others think Christianity is big enough to stand up for itself and can withstand a few shocks. In the Middle Ages after all, at communal festivals like Corpus Christi, or great Saints Days, there would be jokers and jesters, and people dressed up as devils poking the crowds with a fork and making rude remarks in every direction. The ‘world turned upside down’ through plays and sketches showed that the Church was capable of experiencing Art, able to laugh at itself, as well as to be in touch with the beautiful and sublime.

The creative energy of God
The link between Art and Creativity, and between the creative powers of men and women and the creative energy of God, sustaining life and love and humankind, are an important theme in Christian theology. In our modern democratic age, every child is encouraged to express itself through drawing and painting from the early years. Nearly all young people (at least in the West) have access to the latest technology, to create and record their experience of the world on camera, on mobile phone or webcam, and to display it on Facebook or You Tube. Expressing our human creativity is a way of praising and glorifying in God’s creative role in the world, just as it was for the artists and craftsmen of the past.