( Originally Published 1896 )
Sacred art has been degraded by too much tragic awfulness, too many images and pictures of bloody suffering, agony, and woe. The Romish churches, especially of the old world, are so stocked with painful illustrations of Christ's passion and the pangs of martyrdom as to torture the soul of the beholder and appeal to its morbid sympathies. Such gory and sorrowful scenes are wholly incompatible with the blessed, joy-producing, ennobling influences of our Christian religion. We agree with him who says: "No one ought to call himself a very good Christian until he has learned how to find the bright side of things, to say cheerful words, and to laugh a good hearty religious laugh."
Christian art is art divested of its sensuous and earthly elements and breathing a new and pure spirit. Bishop Thompson said, " The rise of the Christian church was the restoration of the fine arts." It is a notable fact that the decadence of Christian art was accompanied with a declining faith. It was not art that led to the decadence of Christian life in the church, but as the society of the age fell, the pure character of Christian art changed and fell "into a depth of sensuousness and extravagance." At the beginning of the nineteenth century, art had sunk so low that it was said to be separated almost wholly from the divine mission that it had filled from the second to the fifteenth century.
All of the cardinal doctrines of Christianity have been delineated and taught by artistic symbols, pictures, and carvings, which began in the Christian Catacombs of Rome where are found the rudiments of Christian art. Christian art in symbol and sacred commemoration sprang up even in the gloom and darkness of the Catacombs. It was born in faith and nurtured in purity. Its history and record are clearly traced from the very beginning down to the lordly Basilica and the Gothic cathedral; so that before the Rennaissance, there is found an illustrious sequence of Christian art, reaching back to the Catacombs."
Just as Christianity adopted graphic art or literature for conveying religious instruction, so it did well to adopt sculpture and painting and symbolism for the same purpose.
Christianity introduced new words and gave new meaning to old ones in all languages. So it might well convert pagan art to the holier purpose of conveying Christ's religion to the mind and heart. The fact that the violin was long confined to the dance-room and the devil's service does not imply that it may not now be used in God's service. May the day come when a purified pagan art may be brought under tribute to Christ's religion, yea, when all of the magnificent heathen temples and Roman Catholic cathedrals shall become sanctuaries of our God where a pure and unadulterated Gospel shall be preached!
The Christian school of art "spoke of the presence of a loveliness and sentiment derived from a nobler source than pagan inspiration; spoke of Jesus Christ and his sublime lessons of peace and charity, ,and belief, with which he had preached down the altars and temples of the heathen, and rebuked their lying gods into eternal silence."
When sculpture and painting arose early in Italy from the ruins in which they had long been buried, they arose with the " mantle of the Christian religion about them." The early Christian artists cared more to ex-press sentiment than graceful shape. They thought it was enough to impress an air of holiness or serenity on their works. For a long time they seemed to fear lest they might incur the charge of imitating the heathen, if they gave much attention to exquisite beauty or harmony or accuracy of design.
"All that Christianity demanded from art, at first, was readily accomplished; fine forms and delicate hues were not required for centuries, by the successors of the apostles; a Christ on the cross; the Virgin Mary lulling her divine Babe in her bosom; the Miracle of Lazarus; the preaching on the Mount; the Conversion of St. Paul; and the Ascension - roughly sculptured or coarsely painted, ' perhaps by the unskillful hands of the Christian preachers themselves - was found sufficient to explain to a barbarous people some of the great ruling truths of Christianity. These, and such as these, were placed in churches, or borne about by Gospel missionaries, and were appealed to when words failed to express the doctrines and mysteries which were required to be taught."
Who shall say that the eye may not be made the medium of religious instruction in cases where illiteracy makes written language of no use! Christian emblems and pictures have opened to the more ignorant souls the way to a kingdom not of this world. Are the sculptured or pictorial representations of sacred beings and truths a help to the sincere devotions of the unlettered members of the Roman Catholic church? We believe so, if used as symbols of instruction and for illustration, not idols of worship. May not an ignorant mind - a weak faith, a feeble gratitude, be thus aided? May not art be a necessary link in the chain of religious development? Are not some human beings so ignorant, so weak mentally, or so bigoted by training, that they cannot pray without a picture or statue, or cross, or string of beads before them? We have sometimes thought so, and would rather see them worship in that way than not try to worship at all. But it is a very low order of religion, and always has the appearance of idolatry. God is a spirit, and they that worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.
The correspondent with Dr. T. DeWitt Talmage's party wrote as follows from Brindisi: " After dinner we rambled along the main street until we came to a Greek orthodox church, which we entered, and sat clown to rest awhile: While thus seated we noticed an old man enter, carrying a large bundle, which he quietly deposited in a corner. He then advanced towards the altar, and kneeling down reverentially he offered up a prayer. Rising he pressed his lips to the glass that covered a painting of the Savior of the world, which adorns one of the walls of the sacred structure, folded his hands and devoutly looked upwards, mumbling something at the time that we could not catch. After this devout performance, which did not consume more than two minutes, he burdened himself anew with his bundle and started off, it was plain to see, spiritually benefited and quickened. ' What a blessing religion is to mankind, said Dr. Talmage when he had gone.
The religious comfort that poor man enjoys, and the hope of a home beyond, lightens the burden and brightens the gloom of his toilsome life. All the learning and civilization of ancient Rome and Athens could not accomplish that."' The power of art should be used wisely for good. It is only the abuse and prostitution of noble art that works evil.
A religion may be made one of art, and not one of heart. The Jews of Christ's time had a religion of art. They could build elaborate tombs and garnish sepulchers, while they were at the same time killing and crucifying prophets, wise men, and the Savior himself. Profession of religion is one thing, possession quite another. Is not Romanism a religion more of art than of heart?'
We are not among those who believe that true heart-feeling in religion is only compatible with the deadness of all art-feeling. Is all art inconsistent with all heart in God's worship? We believe that a work of art may speak through the eye to the heart. The fine arts may he a means in the hands of the Christian church to teach its doctrines. The history of Christian art from the rude early paintings and sculptures of the Catacombs to the present proves the value of art in religion.