What Color Can Say

Look at this color.

What do you feel when you look at it?

Now look at this one.

What does it remind you of? Do you think of pleasant or unpleasant things? Now look at this one.

Does it hold a certain meaning or special significance?

If you said that the blue made you feel calm or at peace, that the red reminded you of emotion or anger, and that the purple signified royalty, you are not alone.  These associations are very common from person to person and it isn’t hard to see why. Blue reminds us of a clear, sunny day, a peaceful sky. Red reminds us of love, passion, violence. Violet has historically been an expensive color to make, and it is still associated with the rich and the royal. It also doesn’t occur often in nature and so it immediately stands out to us as something special.

Artists can leverage colors and use them to communicate quite a bit in their work. Sometimes they use these colors in obvious ways, relying on our common associations to aid in their storytelling. Often, they use a much subtler approach, relying on psychology to illicit a particular response from viewers. For instance, looking at the color orange can make some people hostile, while pale green can have a calming effect.

For Luther, however, it seems such subtlety was not an option.  Meant to be a visual representation of his theology, Luther’s Rose was far too important to leave interpretation to chance:

Grace and peace from the Lord. As you desire to know whether my painted seal, which you sent to me, has hit the mark, I shall answer most amiably and tell you my original thoughts and reason about why my seal is a symbol of my theology. The first should be a black cross in a heart, which retains its natural color, so that I myself would be reminded that faith in the Crucified saves us. “For one who believes from the heart will be justified” (Rom. 10:10). Although it is indeed a black cross, which mortifies and which should also cause pain, it leaves the heart in its natural color. It does not corrupt nature, that is, it does not kill but keeps alive. “The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17) but by faith in the crucified. Such a heart should stand in the middle of a white rose, to show that faith gives joy, comfort, and peace. In other words, it places the believer into a white, joyous rose, for this faith does not give peace and joy like the world gives (John 14:27). That is why the rose should be white and not red, for white is the color of the spirits and the angels (cf. Matthew 28:3; John 20:12). Such a rose should stand in a sky-blue field, symbolizing that such joy in spirit and faith is a beginning of the heavenly future joy, which begins already, but is grasped in hope, not yet revealed. And around this field is a golden ring, symbolizing that such blessedness in Heaven lasts forever and has no end. Such blessedness is exquisite, beyond all joy and goods, just as gold is the most valuable, most precious and best metal. This is my compendium theoligae [summary of theology]. I have wanted to show it to you in good friendship, hoping for your appreciation. May Christ, our beloved Lord, be with your spirit until the life hereafter. Amen.

Letter from Martin Luther to Lazarus Spengler, July 8, 1530

What I love about this is that long after Luther wrote this letter, we still publish summaries of his explanation of the design right along with it. It is a clear and concise delivery of the gospel, not only a perfect use of liturgical art and theology, but also a perfect use of symbolism and color.  

Nobody Doesn’t Like a Nativity

I love nativity scenes. I love the art of them, that they are all so unique. Whether made from a mold or hand carved, these small sculptures become interactive artwork when we set them out, recreating the scene as we like. This is liturgical art at its best: artwork which tells a story, loud and clear. We always have Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child. Often we have a donkey, there to tell us what sort of conditions Jesus was born under. Almost always we have wise men, bowing and offering their gifts. Sometimes there is a shepherd, a sheep, and an angel, to tell the story of the shepherds in the fields who were visited by angels heralding the birth of our Lord. Together, these pieces come together to tell a familiar Christmas story, and when most of us look at them we know exactly what they mean.

My family didn’t always have a nativity. In fact, we didn’t get one until I was probably a pre-teen, and as a child I thought there was a very serious reason for that. For whatever reason, I thought that protestant Christians weren’t allowed to have them. I thought that images of Jesus, of any kind, were strictly prohibited. I thought that crucifixes were attached to Catholic identities; that, living in the joy of the resurrection, only empty crosses were permitted for protestant Christians. I don’t know where the idea came from, but I had a notion that this was a hard-and-fast rule across most denominations, especially my own.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I was taken to a church member’s house for a Christmas party and found an ornate nativity set displayed prominently on their mantle! I was shocked. There was Jesus. Right there, that was a baby statue of Jesus. I looked around in horror. No one else reacted. Surely, they all saw it too? Were we just going to pretend we didn’t notice? I don’t remember who I was with, which adult, but I vividly remember our conversation sounding something like this:

“Look! Over there! Do you see that?”

“Yes! Isn’t it pretty?”

“That’s Jesus! Why do they have that?”

“…What do you mean?”

“Isn’t that a Catholic thing?”

“No. It isn’t a Catholic thing. It’s a nativity.”

Now, I’ve since learned that crucifixes aren’t just for Catholics, and neither is artwork containing images of a Christ figure. While many protestant Christians do oppose rendering any representations of Christ’s likeness, some freely do it. Still others are only comfortable with illustrations or small pieces for personal devotion. But the one thing that no one ever seems to question is Jesus’s likeness in nativities. What I was trying and failing to ask with my little kid words so long ago is why?

Is it because of tradition? Is it because our families have always had nativities so we set them out every year without a moment’s thought? Is it because they are simply a staple in our Christmas decorations? Is it because the Jesus we find in our nativities is meek and mild, small and unassuming unlike the Jesus of the rest of the New Testament? Do we allow the image of him in our homes because he is a baby, seemingly not yet the God-Man Jesus we worship?

I hope not. I hope the reason no one really bats an eye at nativities is because they tell a readable story that we need to hear. I like to think that that we diligently set out our Mary’s, Joseph’s, and Jesus’ each year because the reminder of that story, the comfort and joy it brings, means something to us. We value it. This is what liturgical art should do. It tells the stories of the Bible. It communicates the mysteries and comforts of scripture. It provides a centerpiece around which the gospel can be shared and taught in churches and homes.

This is an important function that liturgical art performs, and nativities do it so perfectly. In fact, they are so popular, such a cherished part of many Christmas celebrations, that you can even find them in the homes of non-believers. This is the gospel, being brought into the home by the arms of the very person who needs to hear it.

My fear is that we will come to the conclusion that representations of Jesus are indeed idolatrous, because if that’s so then I think we have to chuck our nativities in the trash and that would be such a shame. It would be a shame to lose the one piece of liturgical art which is loved by Catholics, Protestants, and non-believers. It would be a shame to deprive people of the comfort and joy our nativities remind us we have. And it would be a shame to reject such a valuable tool for telling the story of how our Salvation came to us. 

Cover art: Adoration of the Shepherds, Gerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst, oil on canvas, 1622,Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

When Walls Speak

I used to love spending time at my friends’ houses as a kid. It was a new environment, one that was different from my own. The smells were different, the furniture and color schemes were different, and many times the rules were different too. It fascinated me.

I think you can tell a lot about a person or family simply by walking into their house.

Some houses feel sterile and controlled, others are homey and lived in. Some feel chaotic and neglected, others are warm and cared for. A lot of this has to do with how the family simply exists within the house, how they interact, the words and tones they use to communicate with each other. Some of it has to do with the way the house is physically cared for, and a lot of it is affected by the atmosphere created by decorations, heirlooms, nick knacks, or trinkets. Is the house essentially a large display case for Start Trek memorabilia, or are the walls bare except for a few pieces of modern art? Are the shelves lined with pictures of family and loved ones, or are they stocked with treasures from past travels? When you walk into another person’s house, you can get a pretty clear snapshot of who they are and what is important to them.

It’s quite an intimate experience if you think about it.

I don’t think churches are any different. Every church has its own feel, its own architecture and set-up. The pews may be made of solid wood or softly cushioned. The chapel my be designed to face the pulpit and lectern face-on, or curve around the cross. A baptismal font may be found at the entrance to the sanctuary or at the front of the chapel. You can walk into a church and immediately get a feel for what is important there.

Just like every family has its own story, every congregation has its own history, and the houses in which each live become a reflection of those histories.

There is one big difference I have noticed lately, though. No one ever questions the importance of maintaining the comfort and beauty of a house. Wallpaper starts to peel and we replace it with new paint. We hire plumbers and electricians to keep our houses running efficiently. Our color schemes or décor become outdated and we update or replace them without question. We provide safe and attractive toys and equipment for our children. We decorate with enthusiasm.

When we move to do the very same things in our churches, however, it is often scoffed at or ridiculed.

Many believe we should be doing other things with the Church’s money- feeding the poor or ending homelessness. Some say that by beautifying and updating our churches we are putting our priorities in the wrong place, in superficial, worldly matters. Some worry that when the world sees our beautiful, well maintained facilities we will be judged as being selfish with our resources. I really can’t blame those who see it this way, the Church does have a history of existing in extravagance while the surrounding people suffered- stealing from the poor and enjoying the spoils. I don’t think that is really what we are talking about here, though. We are talking about being good stewards, being trusted with a little (ensuring that a church and its congregants are healthy and flourishing) so that we may be trusted with a lot (doing the same for the surrounding community).

A house is a place in which a family is nurtured and cared for so that they will have the strength and energy to go out into the world and do their work.

A church is very much the same. We need to ensure that we are building a nurturing place in which to feed people’s souls and speak the gospel- a place where congregants can find rest, be strengthened and fortified, so that they can then go out into the world and serve their neighbors.

We sometimes forget that spending time and money on our churches does serve the greater community.

We forget that the surrounding neighborhood benefited from my church’s playground, that artwork in a sanctuary can be viewed for free by anyone on a Sunday morning. Not only do these things inherently serve our community, but they create more opportunities to speak the Word of God to those that need to hear it.

They also show our community, and potential future congregants, that we can be trusted to take care of what has been given to us, that we take those gifts seriously, and that we have the capacity to give them the support and nurturing they need.

We must keep in mind that the way we care for and maintain our churches not only reflects our history and identity as a congregation but it also speaks to who we are as God’s children, as stewards of His gifts. Most of all, though, we must keep in mind that it reflects our theology and affects the ways in which we are able to present the gospel.

Minimalism and the Church

“To appropriate: to take for oneself; take possession of; to steal.”

While at the theological symposium in Saint Louis last week, I had the rare pleasure of meeting a fellow liturgical artist. Kelly Schumacher is the founder of Angus Dei Liturgical Arts in Saint Louis, Missouri and a talented creative with a theological foundation for her work that is as elegant as it is intelligent. Her passion for what she does is unwavering and her enthusiasm is infectious.

The lecture that Kelly gave at the symposium was impressive and inspiring, but there was one point in particular that stood out to me. She was discussing the Minimalist movement of the 1960’s and 70’s and the impact that it had on church art and architecture. As she presented an example of a particularly bare church interior with minimal design, she asked if we thought it was beautiful, if it recalled thoughts of a heavenly Jerusalem and the adorned Bride of Christ, and if it inspired faith and devotion. “Let’s be honest,” she said, “no…and we can do better.” She went on to say that by adopting minimalist design principles we are “appropriating false theologies”. I was floored by her choice of words and I’ve been trying to unpack them ever since.

The trend in art and architecture known as Minimalism has its roots in Industrial-era Europe but began to gain traction in New York in the 1960’s. The main stylistic components are abstract geometric shapes and the core of its psyche is a rejection of all metaphor and meaning beyond that of surface value. For architectural purposes this often means that structures are reduced to only their necessary components, the bare minimum needed to function. In Minimalist art we generally see large planes of solid color, nothing more. I have to wonder already if a system of design based on the idealization of meaninglessness is appropriate for use in our churches.

Minimalism is also heavily influenced by Japanese tradition and Zen philosophies, sometimes looking to the environment to reveal something spiritual and abstract in the design. Again, I wonder. How can this be congruent with our theology? What are we trying to communicate here? How did we get into this mess in the first place? Did we simply succumb to the trends of popular culture? Its true that these things tend to creep into design choices unnoticed, but we are in the world not of it, are we not?

Another point Kelly made in her lecture was that churches are holy places- holy, set apart. They shouldn’t look like every other building on the block. The church is the Bride of Christ, should she not look like it? Should she not be adorned for the marriage feast that is to come? Instead, Minimalism would have us strip her bare! What we are left with are sanctuaries that are utilitarian at best and cold at worst. Our faith is not a cold faith or a minimal faith. We are lavishly loved by a God who pours out blessings upon blessings. So why do we still cling to the tenets of a visual philosophy that so clearly conflicts with our doctrine? I have to echo Kelly when she says that we can do better.

Artistic movements often come with some pretty hefty philosophical baggage and the Minimalist system of design is no different. It is critical that we be cognizant and careful with how much of this baggage we invite to cross over the threshold into our churches. Our design will profess something- our art and architecture will tell the world something about us, and something about our God. What do we want it to say? Will we profess the philosophies of Minimalism? Zen? Every architectural element, every corner of space is a chance to speak the gospel and we are missing opportunities everywhere, opportunities we cannot afford to miss. We can do better, and we must.

Real, Good, Liturgical Art

I had a friend in college who was an abstract artist.

She was a phenomenal figurative painter and could handle realism with great sensitivity and finesse, but her pursuit of her abstract work was passionate and tenacious. She took it quite seriously. There were days when her creativity flowed easily, and days when she struggled to paint at all. In critiques, however, some of our classmates often questioned the validity of her work. They would say it was too easy, that you cannot pour a couple of cups of paint over a canvas and call it a painting. What they were really asking, though, was “is this good art, is it even art at all?”, and this would eventually lead us to the same question that artists and critics have been asking for ages.

What is good art?

Who gets to decide what is good and what isn’t? We may be able to measure how popular art is, how technically difficult a painting is, how much it went for at every auction its ever been sold at, how successful the artist is or was, but does any of that tell us whether or not the art is actually good? Do critics define what is good? Curators? Historians? Perhaps, but there have been wonderful artists who have gone entirely unnoticed by the world. So how is it quantified? Maybe it can’t be.

Maybe it comes down entirely to personal preference.

It’s easy to dismiss abstract art as childish nonsense, especially when we don’t understand it, but for every painting that “a third grader could have done” there was at least one person who thought it was worth taking the time and materials to create it. Maybe that effort alone makes the work valid. I am unsure as to how to go about answering these questions and maybe I will never find concrete answers to them.

When it comes to art in the Church, however, I think we have to find a way to define what is appropriate and what is not.

I love abstract art. I find the tooth of canvas and the texture of paint attractive. I love the creative process. Abstract art is all about those things, it focuses on the materials of art and on the act of creating. I think it is valuable, that it can beautiful and moving, and perhaps it could be useful in personal prayer or meditation, I’m not sure. I wonder, though, if church is an appropriate space for that kind of work.

Everything we do in the Divine Service says something significant.

Every time we stand up, sit down, or kneel, we are told something about our relationship to our God. Our hymns are wordy and profound, through them we sing the Gospel to our fellow congregants and they sing it back to us. From the second we step foot in the sanctuary to the moment we leave, we are told over and over again who we are and who our God is in no uncertain terms.

Church is not abstract; our faith is not abstract.

It is grounded in Christ and in real, physical means of salvation. I’m usually very hesitant to tell others what they should and should not be doing with their art, but in this case, I believe that Liturgical art should have a clear and readable message, and that message should be the Gospel. Liturgical art has a job to do and it must be purposeful. The delivery of the Gospel is too important to be vague.

A Little Art Goes a Long Way

I have yet to encounter a single church body that does not utilize a logo or image of some kind to represent them. It may be a simple cross or dove, perhaps just a square of color overlaid with the church’s name. But there it is, a symbol of the church’s identity; it communicates their heart and mission, who they are as a congregation, how they want to be seen by the world. It’s a big task for a small piece of art, but its value is unmistakable.

A church logo does what all liturgical art should do: it speaks the gospel. It might even be a church’s first chance to do so which makes it a pretty important part of community outreach. Often, it is the first thing a person sees when encountering a church for the first time, whether they stumble upon a website or walk onto a church campus.

Its important to think about these things, to consider how we use our art to communicate. I find it encouraging that churches are demonstrating that they see worth in the visual representation of scripture. Whether they are on board with hiring original liturgical art or not, on some level they can see that speaking the gospel in visual terms is valuable.

Empty Walls, Empty Halls.

The visual arts really are an important part of the life of the Church, even if it is sometimes difficult to see it.

In some churches, the use of art is bold and seamlessly intertwined with worship and liturgy. Paintings, mosaics, carved marble, and stained-glass windows adorn ancient and modern sanctuaries alike. In some of these churches the artwork takes over the entire building, manifesting in an overwhelming display of God’s word, reminding us that there is something bigger than us, something outside of ourselves that bursts into our lives and claims us. Many times, the imagery sprawled across the architecture of these churches endeavors to tell the entire epoch of law and gospel, of sin and salvation, from the fall of Adam to the resurrection of Christ.

In other churches the role of visual art is subtler.

Perhaps a tame mural in a nursery, or a watercolor hanging in the church halls. These are easier to overlook but they still remind us of God’s small mercies, the tiny miracles that greet us every day. They are short stories, snippets, that guide us to the bigger picture.

Some churches, however, don’t seem to make use of the visual arts at all.

Sometimes, these places of worship have purposefully excluded artwork from their spaces, banning it from the walls in an attempt to remove distraction or out of fear of idol worship. It’s a mildly iconoclastic view that sees images as an affront to the Divine Service, as irreverent at best and outright rebellious at worst. In other churches there is a desire for minimalism, an aesthetic choice in favor of clean walls and a sterile environment for focused worship.

For other churches, it is merely an oversight.

They do not actively pursue art for their worship space, either not thinking to include it, or not knowing how to do so.

Often it is an issue of cost: hiring an artist is expensive.

It takes money (sometimes money churches simply don’t have) in order to buy or commission art that is of good quality and is suitable for a house of God. Maybe these churches see the value of artwork which speaks the Word of God but are unable pay that value. In other cases, it may be bureaucracy which stands in the way. The church wants art. The pastor wants art. The people want art. The desire for artwork, however, becomes buried in the process by which these decisions are made. It can take ages for committees or boards to agree on big decisions like this, and sometimes the initiative gets swallowed up entirely. It’s understandable, though. As I said before it is quite expensive to hire artwork, and people want to be sure they are getting the best they can get in exchange for their church’s precious resources.

Perhaps that is all any of this really boils down to.

We want to be faithful, respectful, reverent. We want to make good choices and do the right thing for our congregations. Some churches feel the right thing to do is leave art to the outside world (a shame, I think, but I am obviously biased). Some feel that art is a powerful tool in helping spread the Gospel. Some feel that it is a luxury- nice to have but not a priority.

We in the Church want to be diligent about our stewardship over everything we have been given.

We want to be sure our congregations are served, spiritually cared for, and edified. We don’t want to be wasteful or careless with our budgets. We are thoughtful in our choices and often slow to spend. It’s quite admirable. I wonder, however, if we shouldn’t also be just as diligent in our stewardship of the visual arts.

Visual Cravings

Who Cares About Liturgical Art Anyway?


Visual communication is huge these days.

It seems like the people in my life are constantly communicating over text message and social media using GIFS, emojis, and memes. I’ve seen whole conversations conducted almost entirely in this way, and I ask myself why?

Why is this the way we “talk” to each other now?

Is it out of convenience or laziness? Is it a fascination with new toys and technology? Is it just more fun that way? Have we become bored with the written word? Have we been trained to need more and more visual stimuli to keep our attention? Perhaps, but these visual messages also carry different meanings than words do alone. Have you ever tried to tell someone how you feel, tried to describe an emotional or mental state and just…not had the words?

Sometimes language can be limiting in its ability to fully express these things.

Sometimes an image captures it perfectly. Although the interactions that take place online and over text can seem shallow in content and attitude at first glance, I really believe that people are looking for deep connections and for meaningful expression.

There is a need for visual stimulation in our culture which betrays a deeper, more pressing, need for meaning.

With this in mind, many churches have implemented tools like PowerPoint presentations, image and light projections, and even video media, all in sincere and thoughtful hopes of maintaining interest and focus, of creating an environment which fosters growth and education. This shows care and an honest desire to serve congregations in every way, but do all these technologies address the underlying need for connection and meaning?

If sermons provide a better understanding of scripture, if hymns create complex connections and facilitate contemplation, if the Divine Service speaks salvation to those who hear it, shouldn’t our visual aids, our art, do the same?

The utilization of Liturgical Art addresses all of these needs. If done well it provides significant visual stimulus, draws the viewer in and encourages thoughtful meditation on The Word. If art in the church clearly speaks the gospel, it adds to the Divine Service (rather than distract from it). If it is “readable” and understandable to those who see it, it will constantly point to Christ as Creator and Author of our Salvation.

Liturgical Art expresses the mysteries of our Faith, tells of its beauty and complexity, creates profound connections.

It is an important tool in telling biblical truths and might just communicate what we struggle to say with our words. It gets right to the heart of our need for meaning and delivers Christ straight to our hearts.