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Book Review : Renewing the Ties Between the Palette and the Altar

February 19, 1987|MARK C. TAYLOR | Taylor is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Religion at Williams College. and

A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities: The Visual Arts and the Church by John Dillenberger (Crossroad: $22:50; illustrated)

In 1910-11, Wassily Kandinsky wrote: "The great epoch of the spiritual, which is already beginning, or, in embryonic form, began already yesterday . . . provides and will provide the soil in which a kind of monumental work of art must come to fruition." Earl A. Powell cites these words in the foreword to the highly informative and richly illustrated catalogue accompanying the show titled "The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985" on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

It is significant that the inaugural exhibition in the Robert O. Anderson Building is devoted to the relationship between spirituality and modern art. As this dazzling collection of art makes clear, many leading 20th-Century artists have been deeply influenced by religious ideas and practices.

John Dillenberger, professor emeritus at Graduate Theological Union and president of the American Academy of Religion, points out that, though many modern artists have been seriously involved with religion, most contemporary theologians show little concern for art. With a few notable exceptions, theologians in recent years have stressed the verbal at the expense of the visual. Dillenberger attempts to redress this imbalance by developing a theological understanding of the visual arts, which will make it possible for Protestants and Roman Catholics to reappropriate the Western artistic tradition in new ways.

Though Dillenberger titles his book "A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities," he devotes a major part of this study to a historical survey of the interrelation of the visual arts and religion from the time of the early church to the present day. Over against those who insist that Christian religious art is a post-Constantinian phenomenon, Dillenberger insists that visual art has always played a significant role in the life of the Christian church.

A consideration of the way in which the figure of the Greek god Orpheus was transformed into the image of Christ and an analysis of elaborately decorated sarcophagi from the 3rd Century disclose aspects of early Christian art too often overlooked. The overwhelming importance of painting and architecture throughout the Middle Ages suggests the inseparability of the verbal and the visual in medieval religious life. Dillenberger notes that the 13th-Century mystic and theologian St. Bonaventure maintained that "visual arts give us an open Scripture, one open and visible to all, accessible to those who are uneducated and cannot read. Images, accompanied by preaching and teaching, could serve as a substitute for Scripture for those who could not read."

This situation changed radically during the Reformation. Reformation theology is a theology of the Word in which the verbal eclipses the visual. Though Luther did not openly espouse the removal of images from churches and the liturgy, he warned of the potential for abuse latent in the visual arts.

The suspicion of art repeatedly expressed by the founders of the Reformed tradition, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, led to the banishing of painting and sculpture from most Protestant churches. Invoking the second Commandment, many Reformers methodically and often violently removed images from churches and purged church services of what they regarded as aesthetic excesses. Dillenberger correctly points out that until recently, this Reformed tradition has continued to shape the Protestant responses to the visual arts. Initiating one of the most important chapters of modern theology, Karl Barth (The Epistle to the Romans, 1918) declared that God, who remains radically transcendent, cannot be represented in any cultural artifact. From this point of view, the Word of God is inescapably iconoclastic.

In the most interesting sections of the book, Dillenberger exposes religious themes that recur in much 20th-Century art. Rather than an essentially secular phenomenon, much of the art labeled "modern" harbors religious, though not necessarily Christian, overtones and undercurrents. By calling attention to religious dimensions of modern art, Dillenberger hopes to establish the foundation for a theology that is open to and informed by contemporary art. If art can still be spiritual, theology might once again become artistic.

Dillenberger realizes that the program he advances is, in many ways, radical. In the aftermath of the Reformation veneration of word over image, our visual sensibilities have atrophied. Before we can think and write differently, we must, Dillenberger contends, learn to see anew. No place is better to begin this important process of re-education than the L.A. County Museum of Art . . . today.

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