encounters with God in the world's great art
Some people find it unlikely that art can be a vehicle for divine inspiration. It can be especially hard to believe for non-"religious" art, and even harder to believe for modern art. But it is true.
In the beginning...
The role of the artist
In Exodus 28:33, God specified that priestly garments were to have pomegranates embroidered on the hem. The instructions included some rather bizarre colors for the pomegranates: scarlet, purple, and blue. There are no blue pomegranates anywhere on Earth; God was using artistic license. So the first art was by God Himself.
Consider the word "abba." This is the word that people in Jesus' culture used for "daddy." It is also a word Jesus encouraged His followers to use for God. It is not the sacred name of God, given to Jacob, but Jesus used it because it paints a picture for us of the intimacy of the relationship we are to have with God -- the intimacy of "daddy." In this and many other instances, Jesus used earthly images to show us aspects of who God is. So Jesus was an artist, too.
Up until the Renaissance, art was generally of, by, and for the church. These people understood the power of art for communicating God's love for mankind. In fact, since few Christians understood the Latin in which masses were conducted, art was necessary for conveying the Gospel.
During the Renaissance, the church continued to be the primary sponsor of great art. But hostile ideas, such as humanism, began to creep into art, too. Before long, art was becoming more and more secular, and the church began to lose its control over art.
This began a slow process in which art and the church drifted farther and farther apart. Scandalous images appeared in art, and then images disappeared into abstraction, so the already wary church could not even tell what the art was meant to portray. And most recently, art has produced images calculated to be offensive to Christians.
So art and the church have become estranged. But God has not stopped speaking to us through art. We've just stopped listening. Not all art carries the voice of God, but He continues to use every means available, including art, to bring us closer to Him.
But how can art bear God's voice if it's created by non-Christians -- even by artists sometimes openly hostile to Christianity?
It may seem that the greatest artists are those most skilled in reproducing images as they appear in "real life." In fact, though, the artist's primary obligation, even beyond that of skillful execution, is honesty. A skillfully executed image with no fundamental truth in it will not endure as a great work. And some less-than-masterfully executed works are nevertheless revered because of the truth that they convey.
To the extent that the artist is able to communicate truth, God is in that communication, even if the viewer has to sort through some disagreeable clutter to get to it.
This should not surprise us; the Bible is full of stories of God's ability to use sinful men and women to accomplish His purposes.
When I was young our family lived in Europe for a couple of years. My mom was an art-lover, and she dragged us through seemingly every art museum on the continent. At the time, I arrived at the conclusion that the thing that made great art great was primarily its size.
One day, in Amsterdam I had a chance to eavesdrop on an English-speaking tour guide while she described why Rembrandt's The Night Watch is such a great masterpiece. Now this painting is enormous, so I had already figured out it was a masterpiece. But what that tour guide showed me was that it isn't the size at all, but the genius revealed in the way it was painted. That discovery started the process of opening my eyes to art.
Fast forward to the year 2000. In Chicago, I stood before Jules Breton's Song of the Lark and had an epiphany. I understood there for the first time that, as important as the artist's creative input is, the truly critical factor in making great art great is the degree to which it reveals truth. And to the extent that art portrays truth, it bears witness to Him who said "I am the Truth..." I came to believe that, among many things that make great art valuable, the single most important factor is that God has inspired artists throughout the ages with His Truth, and has given them the ability to express some of it visually. So we respond to creativity and genius, yes, but what really moves our souls is the whisper of the voice of God speaking through artists and their art, singing that quiet little love song he has sprinkled throughout all of creation so we won't forget about Him.
It seems to me that so many people go through art museums without much of an idea why it's all supposed to be so great, so I wanted other people to be able to experience what I had been shown. I don't claim to offer the insights of an academic art expert; I just want to find ways that art can help make God's presence more vital to you in a way that most Christians have never experienced - sort of like that tour guide in Amsterdam did for me.