If it were a country, the Catholic Church, with around 1.2 billion followers, would be the most populous in the world. Nations have had their fair share of difficulty keeping large swaths of the population under a common identity. Yet the Church has stood the test of time. How has the Church been able to attract and maintain such a large following over such a long period of time? In attempting to answer this question, it is equally important to understand the means by which the Church has managed to unpack its complex ideas for its largely ordinary people followers – that is, evangelism.
As I understand it, evangelism has two main goals: accuracy and accessibility. First, evangelism aims to paint the most accurate representation of the ideas of religion as presented in the guiding standard works, such as the Bible. The Church and its agents have the responsibility—and the motivation—to remain faithful to the founding documents of the Christian faith. That is, their work of leading the flock must be in accord with the teachings of the Church itself. Second, evangelism also aims to make the complex ideas of religion easily accessible to its followers – to translate the seemingly remote, elusive, and mystical ideas of God and religion into easily accessible and humanly understandable terms. In short, to bring the Church to the people. A plethora of means have been employed to achieve these two goals, including music, performing arts, translation of texts into different languages, education and art. Of all these, I argue that art best accomplishes the two goals of accuracy and accessibility.
The use of art for evangelical purposes dates back to the earliest civilizations. During Egyptian civilization, which spanned more than 30 centuries, from 3100 BC until its conquest by Alexander in 332 BC, Egyptian pharaohs oversaw the erection of giant pyramids as a demonstration of the divine powers of the Egypt, among other purposes. With the advent of Christianity in the ages that followed, art continued to play an important role in the work of the Catholic Church. The early apostles, along with lay men and women, oversaw the construction of the cathedral. One example is the Gothic Cathedral of Milan in Italy, which is as spectacular a work of art as human endeavor. Religious buildings around the world have a tradition of using iconographic stained glass for their windows, which bear various messages adapted from the Bible and other canonical texts of the Christian faith. This iconographic representation of various traits of the Catholic faith can be found on the stained glass windows of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart as well as on the walls of the library.
The painting “Madonna and Child“, exhibited at the Snite Museum here on campus, best encapsulates the role of art in evangelism. This is a painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus. The painting is placed in heaven with angels prostrating before Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mother Mary, presented as being of a preeminent stature, carries the child Jesus on her lap, her gaze fixed on her child. She is adorned with a dark blue veil and cape with her chest and uterus areas painted gold. The Child Jesus holds in one hand a chaffinch which carries a thorny branch in its mouth. He has the other hand outstretched. Above them are two angels prostrating themselves before Mother Mary and Christ. The frame of the painting takes on a Gothic form and is impregnated with golden paint.
The painting is a depiction of Mother Mary’s gracious acceptance of God’s call to be the earthly protector and nurturer (along with her husband Joseph) of the Son of God. His acceptance of this responsibility was not only of service to the kingdom of heaven, but a blessing to the world, earning us salvation. She not only accepted this responsibility with grace, but also carried it out diligently, as shown by her attentive and focused gaze on Jesus. Thus, through this painting, the Church reminds its people that God has called each of us to the service of his kingdom and of humanity. In this way, the Church is able to tell and show its faithful what its teachings consist of.
By using art, the Church is able to paint a human imagination of Christ’s love for all of us. “Virgin and Child” invites us to reflect on the nature of Christ’s love for all of us. Christ, being God Himself part of the Holy Spirit, is pure. The image of the child Jesus seen in “Madonna and the Child” invokes the purity of a child’s love – selfless, innocent and without prejudice. This has the effect of helping the viewer, believer or not, to imagine the nature of Christ’s love as that of a child. Christ is also shown extending his hand, a symbol of the blessings he bestows on the world. We are therefore able to know and see the love of Christ as represented in a work of art better than a song or a sermon could have helped us to understand.
Art has the power to convert mystical questions into humanly understandable terms. The Church and its agents have used works of art to make the gospel more accessible to its flock. Likewise, “Virgin and Child” invites us to reflect on and appreciate the sacredness of God and the Holy Family. The artist paints an image of heaven where angels prostrate themselves before Mother Mary and Christ. The whole painting is infused with gold which depicts the celestial scene as exquisite. This depiction of Christ and Mother Mary endears the Holy Family to the viewer and enhances viewers’ perception of the Holy Family as sacred and therefore worthy of all praise. Such illustrative power can inspire Christians and motivate their faith even more effectively.
Some argue that art can sometimes oversimplify biblical teachings and therefore fails to capture their importance. Others argue that artists impose their own imagination and interpretation of Church teachings. For example, the creator of the Jesus character in the movie The passion of Christ created a representation that has become a reality for many people but has no evidence of certainty. Because the artists are not experienced theologians (with a few exceptions) or divine in any known way, their imaginations cannot be very reliable. The implication of this is that while art can achieve the goal of accessibility, it cannot go so far in precision because artists are subjective and their works are heavily influenced by their thinking.
These ideas raise important questions to help us better understand the use of art in the evangelistic work of the Church. What freedom does the Church give to artists who paint images that represent a reality in the image of the teachings of the Church? If there is no control over what artists can represent through their work, how can their own imaginations be trusted to be closest to the true teachings of the Church? By answering these questions, we can better understand the effectiveness of art in representing religious ideas. Yet, while art may not be the ideal way to achieve both means of accuracy and accessibility, it can be considered our best attempt yet.
Trevor Lwere is a senior from Kampala, Uganda, studying Economics and Global Affairs with a minor in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (EAR). He is a DJ in his spare time and can be reached at [email protected] Where @LwereTrevor on Twitter.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.