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STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 04/16/2008


ARTICLE: A Transfigured Vision

A Transfigured Vision
by Tanja Butler

Art, Faith and Community
In the summer of 1993 I joined a group of six artists in an experiment in communal artmaking in Florence, Italy. We spent a month living in a convent and creating a group of prints that were exhibited nationally as The Florence Portfolio. We visited the Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence, now a museum open to visitors who come to see an extraordinary series of frescoes painted by Fra Angelico and his assistants. These wall paintings were found  throughout the monastery--in cloister corridors, meeting rooms, hallways and individual cells. Fra Angelico, himself a Dominican friar and a member of the order, was intimately aware of the identity and needs of the community, and developed art that supported its devotional life of work and prayer. Such a tight integration of art, faith and community had never been presented so clearly to me.

My experience as a young painting student had been quite different. Modernism still reigned supreme in critical theory in the 1970s, and I was taught that the primary function of art is to create an aesthetic experience. Art that served any other purpose--communicating perhaps social, political, narrative or religious content--was seen as second-rate illustration or propaganda. I was, however, determined to find a way to express my faith in my art, using hidden Christian symbolism of wreaths, pomegranates, the tree of life, burial cloths, the rewards of suffering and martyrdom. When I finished graduate school I felt released from the need to submerge my Christian content and completed a few more pieces in this photo-realist style, with a more straightforward description of God's work in my life.

What I really wanted to do, though, was paint Bible stories I'd loved since childhood. The photo-realist style didn't seem appropriate since I wasn't interested in details of costuming and setting. I wanted to focus on timeless psychological and spiritual truths of the stories. I turned to a style developed by German Expressionists, an early 20th-century artistic movement, telling the story primarily through gesture and color.

In the 10 years it took me to create this body of work, I was working in almost complete isolation--no teachers, friends or mentors who were Christian artists; no defined audience for my work. My non-Christian artist friends could not respond to the religious content of my work, and many of my Christian friends were put off by the style of the work. It was with great relief I discovered Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), a Christian artists' support group. It was my first experience of a supportive community, though much of what bound us together in those early years was our common sense of alienation as artists within our church communities.

A Shifting Landscape
Responding to an increasingly visual cultural environment in the last 20 years, churches are now eagerly exploring ways to add visuals to the worship service. Artists are often called upon to provide imagery, and we find ourselves ransacking past traditions and other cultures for powerful and resonant images. This new level of expressive freedom has much potential, yet as I interact with church communities I also hear a desire for a more discerning, intentional and integrated approach.

For example, Gary Parrett, director of Christian education at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, notes that concert music provides the model for much of contemporary music ministry. What happens to the experience of community, he asks, when the music of the worship leaders is amplified so that only they can be heard? What is called for, Parrett says, is a theology of amplification. Amen, I say, and I would echo that we need a theology for PowerPoint presentations. Our models for using multimedia technology include the worlds of entertainment, big business and education. What effects do we produce when we transport these models into a worship setting? Does the pace of the presentation encourage analysis and response or a numbed passivity? Does the imagery reflect the specific identity of the congregation? Let's use another example: the newly popular use of icons in worship settings. Do our congregants have access to the integrated system of theology, liturgy and devotional practice that these images represent?

In my own search for guidelines I've been reading and rereading Liturgy and the Arts by Albert Rouet, bishop of the diocese of Poitiers in France. Rouet, a poet and mystic who is also a pastor and public administrator. He describes the challenges facing both Church and artist by using the analogy of marriage and divorce. According to Rouet, the existing relationship between artists and the Church is not altogether wonderful--a bit like a divorced couple invited to family celebrations together from time to time. Both sides try to keep up appearances, maintaining a semblance of mutual interest despite their evident mistrust of one another.

Fault Lines
Rouet identifies three areas of tension between churches and the arts. First, they are in competition in how they relate to the sacred. Artists, he writes, "who want to be free and unhampered depend on the divided field of society, which leaves the field of artistic creation as a separate field for their solitude, prophecy, and emancipatory action. This subtle trap is linked to the arts, accentuating their break with liturgy. Artists in this situation of honorable marginalization, even if they themselves may be believers, have difficulty in joining themselves to the social reality of worship, to the unifying act of the society of the church."

This leads to Rouet's second point--that liturgy and the arts disagree about the meaning of freedom. The church defines liberty as being free to serve. "Through love become slaves to one another," Paul writes to the Christians in Galatia. Freedom lies in dying to self, a prerequisite to resurrection in Christ's image, which is our true self. The arts pursue a different goal. The artistic will is determined by itself, and freedom is seen in the unfettered pursuit of the imagination.

Third, the arts and liturgy are in conflict with respect to symbols. Who is the master of the symbolic dimension? Is it artists who freely use symbols of their choice--biblical, Greek, Third World, pantheist--to introduce visual themes into the Church? Is Christian art expected to present recognizable and accepted signs of the faith? This issue became a very real concern 10 years ago when I created a series of 600 graphic images published as a CD-ROM by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to be used in church publications. I was given very strict guidelines by a board of editors and theologians, partly to ensure that the symbols I was designing would be accessible to American churchgoers. I was surprised by some restrictions. For example, the traditional Christian image of the hand of God reaching out from a cloud was unacceptable because some viewers might be puzzled by what looked like a floating, amputated hand. Most congregations, it seems, have not been trained in the visual literacy that is part of their Christian heritage.

After identifying these three seemingly irreconcilable tensions, Rouet comes to a hopeful conclusion. Even in tension a marriage of opposites still exists. As in the difference between the sexes, there can be the possibility for union. Love is, in fact, nourished by such differences. How can liturgy and the arts live together? Before being brought into worship, Rouet writes, the arts need to be purified, or converted. They need to be shot through with renunciation. Liturgical art exists to enhance worship, to deflect attention from itself to that of the community's relationship with its transcendent Creator.

Coming Together
To Rouet's comments I would add three more guiding principles in determining whether art fits into worship: authenticity, appropriateness and accessibility. If in this marriage of liturgy and art the artist must sacrifice her creative autonomy, I would say the Church, in turn, must allow the artist freedom to develop authentic work that has genuine artistic merit. This may involve the use of unfamiliar forms and challenging content. But how can this be done without alienating the congregation that the church is serving? The second principle, appropriateness, may hold some solutions. Liturgical art that is appropriate for a community should reflect the identity of the group for which it is created. Every church community has a complex and unique identity, reflecting its theology, history, worship style, ministry focus, and its vision for the future. Effective liturgical art reflects, enunciates and clarifies the identity of the congregation in visual form. This identity is affirmed and nurtured as it becomes part of the community's physical environment, as we saw in San Marco.

Appropriateness is related to accessibility; artwork that is appropriately designed for a worship community--reflecting its identity--will already contain points of connection for the congregation. Bulletin inserts, presentations by the artists, messages from the pulpit and integration with the teaching ministry are all helpful in clarifying these connections. Seasonal work that helps the church celebrate feasts and sacraments often provides opportunities for intimate interaction. Liturgical art creates a specific texture and color, light and atmosphere for these celebrations that can express and shape the inner life of a community. Perhaps the most effective way to make liturgical art accessible is the participation of the community in planning and producing the work. It is challenging for an artist who is used to the autonomy of private studio work to give up control of the creative process in collaborative work, with all the psychological and practical complexities it entails. The rewards, however, are worth the challenge as the community shares an enthusiastic engagement with the creative artistic process.

These new opportunities to serve God in His Church are a source of great joy to me as an artist. My translation from an isolated studio to the center of community is a profoundly moving experience of God's ministry of reconciliation, a call from alienation to communion. I stand at this new threshold of artistic activity with some trepidation, knowing that it is an awesome charge to express and help shape the worship life of a community. I think of Moses in front of the burning bush, and I tremble, for this is holy ground. I think also of Moses as I plunge into this new territory, an uncharted way to the promised land, requiring fresh attentiveness to God's movements and provision as pillar and cloud. May the art we produce be filled with His Spirit and life.


Tanja Butler, M.A., is associate professor of art at Gordon. Students in her classes have created artwork in collaboration with area churches, the Gordon chapel program, publishers, schools, service organizations, and the Gordon in Lynn program. Her collection of 600 graphic images, Icon: Visual Images for Every Sunday, was published by Augsburg Fortress Publishers. Her work is represented in the Vatican Museum of Contemporary Art; the Billy Graham Center Museum at Wheaton, Illinois; the Portland Museum of Art in Maine; the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts; and the Boston Public Library.

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Tania Butler
Tania Butler