|Dr. Robin Jensen, a Vanderbilt University professor and parishioner at Chris the King Church, was the guest speaker at Pope John Paul II High School’s Distinguished Lecturer Series on March 9, and spoke about christian art. Photo by Rick Musacchio
Art can deepen people’s encounter with God by helping them “mediate the divide between the … invisible and the seeable,” said Dr. Robin Jensen, a Vanderbilt University professor who is one of the nation’s leading experts on Christian liturgy and art.
“When it is delivered in the context of prayer or liturgy, the hearing of the word should be much more than an educational exercise; it should mediate an encounter with God as a living presence, a revelation of Christ to the gathered body as if he were present and speaking directly to them,” said Jensen. “Likewise, in a worship setting, seeing an image is not just looking at a ‘picture,’ it also is the invitation to a similar encounter; the dawning consciousness of divine presence and sacred truth.”
Jensen was the guest speaker for Pope John Paul II High School’s Distinguished Lecturer Series on Monday, March 9. Her talk was titled “Seeing Sanctified: Visual Art as Praying and Praising.”
Various forms of Christian art have different functions, Jensen said. Narrative art depicts scenes from Scripture, dogmatic art illustrates theological concepts or propositions, devotional art prompts feelings such as pity, awe, love or devotion, and portraits can evoke a relationship between the subject of the art and the viewer.
Narrative art is among the oldest and most enduring forms of Christian art. It can be find on the walls of the tombs of early Christian communities depicting scenes from Scriptures, Jensen said.
This type of art is not a substitute for Scripture, Jensen said, but it can go beyond the texts “adding details of place, character and atmosphere.”
“In this respect, the creation of a work of art is similar to certain spiritual practices that ask readers to imaginatively enter into the narrative,” she said.
Dogmatic art presents theological concepts in visual forms, Jensen said.
Language is inadequate when trying to define or describe eternal and divine truths, Jensen said, but art can provide a different type of discourse.
“Artists, like poets, rely upon symbols, metaphors, or visual allusions to past and present experiences of God’s truth and grace,” Jensen said.
Devotional art, like music and preaching, can evoke a variety of emotions, “arousing curiosity, pity, sorrow, delight, indignation, awe, or love,” Jensen said. “Such art aims at forming and deepening our spirituality though both awareness and practice.”
“Sometimes the art in our worship spaces is just gloriously decorative, filling the walls with images that have lyrical or rhythmic beauty: saints processing in eagerness toward some heavenly vision, angels hovering overhead, crosses bursting with greenery, lush vines heavy with grapes, bejeweled thrones prepared for Christ’s second coming, starry night skies on ceiling panels,” Jensen said.
Devotional art for worship can sometimes be abstract elements like color, texture, line or form that “prompt responses of wonder, reverence, or awe – even discomfort,” she added.
Portraits invite us into a relationship, Jensen said. “We do not learn from them, we live with them.”
“The relationship between beholder and image is more direct and can be highly charged,” Jensen said. “It might prompt the viewer not only to regard the image but also to address the subject as if present, in speech, prayer, or by some other gesture – an offering of flowers, the lighting of a candle, the giving of a kiss – that would not be extended to narrative or dogmatic images.
“We have to become respecters of images, and not just their enthusiastic consumers, judging and countering the harmful with the helpful or even with the holy,” Jensen said. “What we see in a worship context is crucial – to shape and reflect upon our encounter with scripture, to witness to our faith, to open our eyes, and to call us to prayer.”