900 years of Christian art

Museum shows biblical scenes through 30 pieces

Museum shows biblical scenes through 30 pieces

January 23, 2003|by Chris Copley

Art has played a part in Christian worship since nearly the founding of the faith. For most of two millennia, Christian artists have reminded viewers of events and teachings from the lives of Jesus and the saints of the church. Much of the art of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance focused on Christian art.

An exhibit of 30 pieces of sacred art is coming to a close at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. The show runs through Sunday, Feb. 2, in the museum's Fulton Decorative Arts Gallery.

The small paintings, drawings, sculpture and other works portray scenes from the Bible and from Christian tradition: Jesus and his mother, Mary; the Annunciation of Mary; the parable of the prodigal son; the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. The pieces were produced in a half-dozen countries during the past 900 years and are drawn from the museum's permanent collection, according to museum curator Amy Metzger.


She said the show is small, with art from such a broad span of time, because the exhibit is drawn from the museum's permanent collection, which contains little devotional or sacred art.

"We don't have much religious art in the collection," Metzger said. "And . . . we have our Renaissance religious art on permanent display in the Old Masters Room."

Individual pieces stand out

With its wide range of styles, media and countries of origin, the Museum of Fine Arts' exhibit has a scatter-shot feel. Oddly, though, the lack of a homogenous character allows each piece to stand out. Some examples:

  • A bronze figure by French sculptor Auguste Rodin portraying the prodigal son.

  • A soft-colored French painting on velour of the Madonna and Child.

  • Three delicate ceramic angels and a Madonna produced by Edward Marshall Boehm's New Jersey porcelain shop. Boehm also produced the amazingly lifelike ceramic birds in the museum's display cases in the hall leading to the Fulton Gallery.

  • A small, painted, wooden Russian icon displaying Mary and an infant Jesus with a tarnished silver cover crafted to fit over the icon. Holes in the decorative cover allow the icon's painted face and hands to show through.

  • A ceramic panel featuring a Madonna and Child. Metzger said the panel is likely a copy of a piece produced by the Italian Della Robbia family, a 15th-century Florentine family known for its brightly colored, religious-themed ceramic decoration.

  • Two small bronzes of Mary by Paul Wayland Bartlett, an American sculptor who studied in Paris with Rodin.

Breaking the commandments?

Christian art has not always enjoyed approval. Some in the early church thought producing painted or sculpted images of Jesus or the saints broke the second of the Ten Commandments. This commandment forbade the ancient Jews from making images of Yahweh as other members of other Middle Eastern religions made images of their gods. Christians had adopted the Ten Commandments for their own use.

Because of this controversy, in some parts of the Christian world, bands of believers destroyed icons and other images of religious figures. They were called iconoclasts - "icon-smashers."

Christian leaders debated the issue and decided physical images could be used for spiritual purposes. In 787 AD, the Council of Nicaea determined "The honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented . . ."

The debate resurfaced during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, when religious separatists protested Catholic traditions such as veneration of images of Christ, the Madonna and the saints.

Some Christians still object to the use of images in a spiritual journey. But Pope John Paul II has reiterated the Catholic Church's rationale for the display of religious art in an apostolic letter called "Veneration of Holy Images."

"The believer of today, like the one yesterday, must be helped in his prayer and spiritual life by seeing works that attempt to express the mystery [of faith] and never hide it. That is why today, as in the past, faith is the necessary inspiration of Church art. . . ," John Paul wrote.

The art of meditation

Artwork can boost a spiritual journey, according to Gwen Skrabak, director of adult religious education and faith formation for St. Ann Catholic Church in Hagerstown. Art can also guide children's first understandings of their family of faith.

"I grew up in the Catholic tradition," she said. "I went to church in a small church. There were these casement windows with stained glass images of the life of Christ. It really did have an impact on me as a child. I remember sitting in church and looking at the windows. They lifted me into the reality to the communion of saints and my part in that reality."

Skrabak said religious art in the home has the same purpose.

"Any art lifts us into the realm of wonder, insofar as art itself invites us to contemplate the meaning of our existence," she said. "Any religious quest is concerned with meaning in our lives."

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