Religious art connects people to God

For thousands of years, art has played an important role in the faith.

“I would say religion has always been a big topic in art,” says Nancy Ross, assistant professor of art history at Dixie State University. “Belief played an important role. “

Ross says that elements of belief can be found in prehistoric artifacts that were used to signify certain things before the advent of writing.

When organized religion arrived, it quickly became a major patron of the arts. Art follows money, and on many occasions throughout civilized history money has been found in religion.

It is only recently – as far as human history is concerned – that art has become so much more than a religious representation.

“It’s really hard to talk about art history without talking about religion,” says Ross. “Art does so many things. It can be purely decorative or it can be filled with detailed iconography.

Replicas of the statue of “Christus” by Bertel Thorvaldsen are used in reception centers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around the world.  Jud Burkett / The Spectrum & Daily News File Photo

Yet religious art can sometimes be a subject of controversy. People of faith take this faith seriously. It’s part of who they are – their internal makeup. And many religions of the world have rules regarding the representation of sacred things.

Much has been said about Islam’s opposition to portraying the Prophet Muhammad, but the reasoning behind it is similar to the commandments found in Judaism and Christianity: the commandment to worship God and not false idols. .

Although Islam, Judaism, and Christianity share this belief, it is understood in different ways. Islam forbids the depiction of Muhammad to discourage any attempt to worship the prophet instead of God.

Likewise, in Judaism, synagogues will never feature representations of humans, says Rabbi Helene Ainbinder of the Beit Chaverim Jewish community in southern Utah. The goal is to avoid anything that could be interpreted as idol worship.

However, the rule does not necessarily apply outside of synagogues, at least for most Jews.

Jewish artists will paint humans and even represent prophets, like Moses. But these images will not be found inside synagogues, where the emphasis is on worshiping God. Still, there can be artistic images of religious stories, such as Jacob’s Ladder or Noah’s Ark – without Jacob and Noah, of course.

Some of the more orthodox Jews, however, may take the command even further. Ainbinder says her own grandmother refused to let people take her photo because she thought it would create a “cropped image.”

While many Jews are not offended by representations of prophets, the line is drawn to representations of God. Due to the reverence they have for the deity and his name, they will not represent him and they usually write Gd instead of the three letters because of this reverence.

Bob Routh, a devotee of the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in St. George, made this stained glass window mounted in a doorway that allows exterior entry into the church's meditation hall.

Good art touches the heart

Even in synagogues, however, art is predominant. From stained glass windows and tapestries to decorative elements of the Torah, works of art are everywhere. In this way, Jewish synagogues can be similar to Catholic churches, which tend to have a lot of decorative elements.

A major difference is that Catholic art does not hesitate to represent saints or even Jesus Christ himself. Ross says these representations generally act as reminders of faith.

Ross acknowledges that other Christians have sometimes criticized Catholicism for the role played by pictures. The concern is that the faithful might begin to confuse works of art with the God they represent.

Father Bob Bussen, pastor of Christ the King Catholic Church in Cedar City, believes there is a misunderstanding about how Catholics view art and images of saints or even Christ himself.

“No, we don’t worship statues or anything like that; we worship God, ”says Bussen. “We don’t love anything material. Worship belongs to God.

The purpose of these images is to remind them of their faith. And it is not only the Roman Catholic churches that are filled with art, it is also common in all divisions of the great Catholic Church, especially the Eastern Orthodox churches where icons play an important role. Bussen describes Catholics as “embodied people” who focus on inserting God into humanity through Jesus.

The second commandment that Moses received from God forbids mankind from having graven images or false idols. Bussen says this command goes beyond religious idols. False gods are not necessarily cult beings, but temporal things like drugs or even money.

“We all have false gods,” he said, adding that the command isn’t just about worshiping statues.

An example of idol worship in the Old Testament focuses on the people of Israel worshiping a golden calf. Yet Bussen says the real problem was not the calf itself but rather what it represented: the false gods.

“It had nothing to do with the calf,” he says. “It had everything to do with turning away from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What are the false gods that we worship?

Bussen argues that pictures have the power to lead people to God. The images themselves are not to be worshiped but they can be used to increase spirituality.

It should also be noted that for centuries access to God’s words in the scriptures has been limited to the privileged few. For this reason, Bussen says artistic decorations in churches like stained glass windows, paintings, and other iconography have been used to teach stories from the Bible. The pictures told the stories because people couldn’t read the book.

A stained glass window in the First Southern Baptist Church in St. George depicts the baptism of Jesus.

Bussen says that all of our senses can be used to come to God, and that includes using sight to experience religious art. This does not mean that all art will bring someone to God, he says. Art also has the ability to be ugly and lead people away from God.

“Good religious art appeals to our senses and enriches our mental experience of the divine,” he says. “Good art touches the heart. It really is.

Bussen has had his own personal spiritual experiences with art. One of them happened last year in Rome while visiting one of his favorite churches. It has spectacular art, he says, including a statue of Christ by Michelangelo. The sculpture represents Christ kissing the cross, one hand wrapped around it and the other outstretched.

“His body is twisted and his head is back, but he’s pointing the other way,” Bussen says. “It’s a fantastic statue. It’s like he’s looking at the world and saying, ‘Come follow me.’ “

When art is used in Catholic churches, it is always blessed with holy water, acknowledging that this is part of the goodness of God’s creation.

Art that depicts other elements of God’s creation can also lead to spiritual experiences. Bussen says he has a photo of Zion National Park in his office which he considers a spiritual piece.

“There are so many ways the created world moves your soul,” he says. “When you touch that reality, whether it’s standing on top of Cedar Breaks or looking at the Grand Canyon, we are extremely touched by the spirit of God in all. What good art does, it captures that same spirit. It leads you to God. It directs you to God. It opens up new perspectives to the experience of God.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints view a painting by artist Brian Kershishnik at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City during the church's 184th annual general conference in 2014.

Find the spirit

In many cases, religious art portrays the spiritual feelings of its creator. A local painter, Gustave Alhadeff, is not a Christian but painted a number of portraits of Christ as a gift to his Christian friends. Most recently he has donated portraits of Christ to Solomon’s Porch Foursquare Fellowship in St. George.

While he may not share the believers’ belief in the divinity of Christ, Alhadeff recognizes a sense of belief or faith in his work.

“I did my best to do something spiritual – not just a painting,” he says.

Annette Everett, another local artist, is known for her sculptures, many of which depict religious themes. Although Everett is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she says her work is not necessarily about any particular religion or even religion in general.

“These are universal themes that appeal to everyone,” she says. “We all struggle with faith. We all have endurance issues.

Everett likens art to parables – simple stories that teach deeper principles. Religious art is about teaching these principles.

St. George artist Annette Everett scupt Thursday at the New Visions art exhibit in Ancestor Square in St. George.  Everett is known to sculpt religious themes.

Even when religious connotations may not be apparent in art, some viewers may be aware of this. Everett says an example of this is a small sculpture she made of a dancer. There is nothing about it that is overtly religious except the title of the play.

During the New Visions Art Show Thursday in Ancestor Square in St. George, a woman saw Everett’s sculpture and burst into tears. She hadn’t even read the title of the play but told Everett that it reminded her of a dream she had had to “dance before the Lord”. Then she asked Everett for the title of the sculpture. “Before the Lord,” Everett replied.

While some arts are overtly religious, such as depictions of Christ, others are more experiential, such as “Before the Lord”.

Looking at LDS art more broadly, Everett says it’s all about the feelings he creates.

“It’s something that invites the spirit into the house,” Everett said. “For me, this is LDS art.”

This spiritual communication with God appears to be an ecumenical understanding of religious art.

A few years ago, St. George’s Catholic Church underwent a major renovation. When it reopened, Father Gustavo Vidal, the former pastor there, gave The Spectrum & Daily News a tour of the facility, which housed many works of art.

Art, he explains, opens a door to the sacred.

“It’s a window to the sky,” he said at the time. “It’s a way of seeing him, of knowing him, of loving him. It’s a way of knowing that he’s a great God, an omnipotent God. It is revealed through all these sculptures, these paintings.

Follow Brian on or on Twitter and Instagram, @BrianPassey. Call him at 435-674-6296.

Bob Routh, a devotee of the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, created many stained glass windows throughout St. George's Church, including this cross.

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