Art’s Return to the Christian Church
When we think of places to enjoy art, the first thing that comes to mind is galleries and museums. However, as history would attest, the most revolutionary and inspiring art came from places of worship. It was during that time in history when churches reached out to the most talented and progressive artists of the day. Artists, engineers, architects worked in great unity to tap all our senses and display the best of architecture, murals, stain glass, icons, altars and sculpture.
Because of the church, art became accessible to many who did not have access to it. Church offered a variety of styles and a great amount of art was represented. For example, the largest church in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, became home to some of the world’s most famous and priceless works. The Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, is a cornerstone of High Renaissance art. The chapel also includes the works of Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Pietro Perugino, and a set of large tapestries by Raphael.
A Section of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling
In Venice, you can enjoy 12th century mosaics at St. Mark’s Basilica. There are more than 85,000 square feet of mosaics in St. Mark’s Basilica… or enough mosaic to cover over one and one-half American football fields. The mosaics were done over eight centuries, mostly in gold, and the result is astonishing. Enter the basilica at different times of day to see how the light changes the experience.
Today, unfortunately, there has been a disconnect between visual art and places of worship; especially in the US. Churches are not as open to invite progressive artists into their space anymore. According to Philip G. Ryken (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary, PhD, University of Oxford), art and worship has become dichotomous. He states that…
“Many Christian artists live between two strange worlds. Their faith in Christ seems odd to many of their friends in the artistic community—almost as odd as their calling as artists seems to some of their friends at church. Yet Christians called to draw, paint, sculpt, sing, act, dance, and play music have extraordinary opportunities to honor God in their daily work and to bear witness to the grace, beauty, and truth of the gospel.”
That’s why it’s refreshing to see churches acknowledging this disconnection and taking steps to remove the gap between art and church, by inviting artists back and giving their congregations an opportunity to experience a new way of enjoying art.
For instance, in one of Florida’s cultural jewels, St. Petersburg, Florida, there are several churches who have started to display local art and internationally known traveling exhibitions and are showing support for artists while giving free access to the public to see the art. Here are a few examples:
St. Pete First United Methodist Church
212 3rd St N, St. Petersburg, FL 33701 | www.stpetefirst.org
In 2018, after almost a year of discussion, St. Pete First United Methodist Church decided to form the St. Pete First Art Collective and repurpose their old chapel (mainly used as storage and meeting space) into a vibrant art gallery. The Chapel Gallery offers a unique exhibition space in St. Petersburg. The Chapel, adorned with a series of stained-glass windows and high-wooden ceilings, unites a century of history with modern elements. Here’s what artist and curator of the St. Pete First Art Collective at The Chapel Gallery, Gina White, has to say:
“The St. Pete Art Collective’s mission is to support and enrich our community through art. Each month we highlight the work of an artist from the Tampa Bay area in our Chapel Gallery, bringing people from all over the area to celebrate their work during 2nd Saturday ArtWalk receptions. In support of our neighbors, we’ve partnered with local businesses like Wooden Rooster, 400 Beach, and Second and 2nd restaurants as well as the St. Pete Opera Company. Inside our church, we use art to build relationship among the congregation as well as enhance our spiritual experiences by creating corporate art installations that mirror our pastor’s current sermon series and involves everyone. In 2018, we were fortunate enough to host Come to the Table, a Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) traveling group show exploring the aspects of Holy Communion. Come to the Table, features thirty-four selected works from historical pieces by Albrecht Durer, to modernist work by Jasper Johns and Sadao Watanabe, to fresh contemporary pieces.”
Oscar Kokoschka. Last Supper. Traveling exhibition “Come to The Table” by civa.org
Sadao Watanabe. Traveling exhibition “Come to The Table” by civa.org
Our Savior Lutheran Church
301 58th St S, St. Petersburg, FL 33707 | www.oursaviorfl.org
In 2019, Our Savior Lutheran Church opened their Narthex to local artists. Our Savior was founded in 1954 and now is one of the most thriving churches in the city. The first art show displayed a world-famous master, Helmut Preiss, an art patron and mixed-media collage artist, Dee Perconti, and Clearwater artist, Rachel Shokey with her traveling exhibition, Āhopian Tō: A Meta-Narrative of the Ultimate Narrative, which was the focal point of the exhibition.
Rachel Shokey. Traveling exhibition “Āhopian Tō: A Meta-Narrative of the Ultimate Narrative.“
In 2020, the church invited internationally recognized, Latin graphic artist, José Oscar Torres and his work of Contemporary Xylography. His work disrupts the original purpose of the wood-carving or etching process. Instead of creating an etching plate for printing, he makes the etching the art itself. José incorporates in his work new wood-carving techniques that verge in sinetism and allows executing images where drawing, painting and engraving merge directly in the original wood plate. The work of José Oscar Torres is a work of fine art that for its singularity, traverses the traditional graphic boundaries.
Here is what Art Critic, José Antonio Pérez Ruíz says:
The art work of José Oscar Torres possesses the power of multiple projections of graphics. His works emit optical vibrations that may very well have sonorous power.”
El Profeta. Xylography by Jose Oscar Torres.
Fishermen Villa at Sunset. Xylography by Jose Oscar Torres.
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
1200 Snell Isle Blvd NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33704 | www.stthomasstpete.org
At the end of November 2019 through the begining of February 2020, St. Thomas Episcopal Church invited international artist, Ludmila Pawlowska, and her breathtaking exhibition, Icons in Transformation. This traveling exhibit has toured cathedrals and museums in Europe and the United States. More than 150,000 people in America had the opportunity to see it because of the efforts of the church, regardless of one’s faith or personal beliefs.
Sir Roy Strong, former Director of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victorian and Albert Museum, London, wrote:
“She (Pawlowska) makes paintings in a vein of contemplative abstraction; her images are intuitive and enigmatic. She uses as many techniques, additives and ways of applying acrylic/oil paint as possible so as to create a surface that entices the viewer and accentuates the process of looking. Her practice as an artist is an attempt to create objects that are beautiful – for beauty reminds us what it is to be human.”
Details. Icons in Transformation traveling exhibition by Ludmila Pawlowska.
Those few examples show a positive dynamic and steps forward of bringing the best of modern art back to the Church. Art and the Church have supported each other throughout the centuries. It’s a vital sign of the Church and the community: for people, it is a historic and common way to have free access to the best art has to offer. It gives churches a wonderful tool to be involved in the community and take back the important role of art patron. As for the artists, it is an incredible opportunity to reach new audiences, start a conversation and build new connections.
Next time you plan your trip to galleries and museums, check with your local churches; you’ll be surprised what you can find.
- Image: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36772