The Divine Mission Of Art
( Originally Published 1896 )
Art has had a divine mission. Michael Angelo said, " The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection." Religion and art can never be divorced, God hath joined them together in his Holy Book, where-in he gave directions for the construction of Solomon's temple with its exquisite designs, most delicately-carved lily-work, and artistic furnishings.
We would be carefully understood. Art in itself has no power to make men better, but it has power to make them more intelligent and refined, and better qualified to understand and appreciate sacred truth which is the real sanctifying agent. Christ said, " Sanctify them through thy truth, thy Word is truth." Now, if sacred pictures, or any pure art-illustrations, as well as the printed page, can enable one to grasp and apply the truth more readily to the heart, then we claim a place for such artistic representations in the service of religion.
What then, is the true relation of art to religion? If art has been a help to religion, we ask, how far? And where must we say to art in true spiritual religion, Thus far shalt thou go, and no farther?
In answering this question, we must not let down by a single bar the spiritual character of Christianity. We take the position that art may be made a valuable aid to true religion, so long as the idea is kept prominent and foremost that art is not the end, but the means; not the master but the servant, and always to be kept subservient to religion.
Art in religion is good and useful only as it serves and aids in true worship, or shows our desire to beautify God's house and give to Him our best talents. The province of art in religion is to be suggestive rather than representative of sacred things. If we have in our churches sacred pictures, and sculptured characters and Bible scenes, let them have no part in our worship proper or spiritual service, but only serve as they do in our houses, to illustrate the Scripture facts, truths, and scenes, making them better understood and more impressive. But in no case should any attempt be made to paint, carve, or delineate the infinite, in-visible, incomprehensible God.
Does one ask, May we not have illustrated papers and books and Bible scenes where Jesus Christ is the prominent figure?
We do not see any harm in making pictures and even statutes of the man Christ, the Human Savior, if for purposes of illustration, purely, and not worship. If it could be afforded, we would have Christ in art pictured and sculptured in all the leading scenes of his earthly life, in the parables and miracles, as the Good Shepherd, as in the act of blessing little children, etc., arranged along the walls of every Sabbath school room. We would appeal to the eye in teaching the great spiritual truths of our most holy religion.
True art does not attempt to dethrone God, but with a supreme enthusiasm strives to approach and commune with him and to worship with the angels and pure spirits around the throne. Any work of art that exalts your idea of God's omnipotence, omniscience, holiness, hatred of sin, love, goodness, and care for those who love and serve Him, is a blessing. Art cannot represent the unseen God, but it may help to confirm our belief in Him who is invisible.
We believe that the imitative arts may express righteous and God-like emotions, just as they may be expressed in action, oratory, gesture, music, or poetry. Michael Angelo's statue of Moses in the act of rising in wrathful indignation, when he discovers the Israelites worshiping the golden calf, is a sermon in itself.
Noble art can help to give us keener conceptions of spiritual being and of a higher and mightier Personality. Art that enables one to realize more fully invisible verities and spiritual truth is wholesome. Shall we not, then, approve of carved figures, paintings, inscriptions, or symbols, that furnish a suggestion of pure religious thought, or kindle a glow of devout feeling?
We may not only admire the works of the great masters, but study them to our profit; we may read their thoughts and assimilate them. "Let us be candid in this matter. Art is but the expression of thought; and we have the right to hold ourselves open to every thought that appeals to us."
A little girl, being asked by an artist to define drawing, replied, " Oh, drawing is thinking, and then marking around the think." The little girl was right, and the same is true of all true art. A statue or painting, as well as a word, may symbolize an idea or conception or spiritual thought, and communicate it to the beholder.
A work of art may be one of the externals of worship to convey an idea. Doctrines and forms of worship are the two outward essential parts of every system of religion. But it must not be forgotten that the form is made for the church, and not the church for the form, that art is the servant of the church.