What a piece of work is humankind. Shakespeare

David Jeffrey: Art and Understanding Scripture

Art and Understanding Scripture

by David Lyle Jeffrey

The purpose of my book, In the Beauty of Holiness: Art and the Bible in Western Culture, is to help deepen the reader’s understanding of the power and magnificence of the Bible as a source for European art, and to provide rich particular examples of artistic achievement which has abiding spiritual and theological significance.

 Almost everyone is familiar with at least some great paintings representing scenes from the Bible; such subject matter dominates the great galleries. Artists in the biblical tradition have been much more, however, than mere illustrators of the Bible. They have actively participated in the interpretation of such stories, sometimes by reflecting theologians, sometimes by innovating in search of deeper understanding or even new doctrine. This activity of artists is already apparent in the catacombs of Rome by the third century AD, where a majority of the biblical subjects depicted are from the Old Testament narrative, but are clearly understood to be interpreted in the light of the Gospel. The frequency of images of the story of Jonah and the whale owes not just to intrinsic interest in the story itself, but to Jesus saying, “For as Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the whale, so shall the Son of Man be three days in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:41). Early Christians saw this story as a sign of their own resurrection to come. But note that the larger biblical story is also about conversion of the Gentiles; just so, frequent images from the book of Daniel, such as that of the three young men in the fiery furnace (Daniel ch. 3) seem to reflect the prayers of Roman Christians that the emperors under whom so many suffered might themselves be converted, as was Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel ch. 4).

Among the many later instances of such artistic biblical interpretation, one genre involves making  typological connections of Old Testament to New Testament events and sayings more explicitly. Beginning with Jesus and Paul, then growing exponentially from the early fathers through the Middle Ages to Calvin, we find chains of paired narratives or sayings represented both verbally and visually. What they teach is that the Old Testament has abiding vitality and significance for Christians when understood not only as a record of divine providence in the life of Israel, but as predictive history with a profound spiritual dimension for life in Christ. Through understanding the connections, those “grafted into...and partaking of the root of the olive tree,” as Paul put it (Romans 11:17), that is, Christian readers of the Bible and artists among them, came to understand the historia humanae salvationis as one great story in which they too had a part. For almost every story in the Old Testament, they reasoned, there was a New Testament echo or fulfilment, if only one knew how to perceive it. In many ways, the readings of traditional liturgies – Old Testament, Epistle, Psalm and Gospel – were organized so as to draw attention to this doubling or pairing as a principle of unity in the Christian Bible.

Artists in the medieval period were employed to teach the most meaningful pairings to those unable to read the biblical text—a majority of most populations until after the Reformation. The Biblia Pauperum, a Franciscan-inspired teaching text for those in pastoral ministry especially (featured in a recent ArtWay meditation by Laurel Gasque) is an important early example of the use of typologically connected Old-Testament and New-Testament narratives. It is ordered so as to show how in the Old Testament the New Testament is ‘concealed,’ while in the New-Testament stories we may see that the fuller meaning of the Old Testament is revealed, while it draws on two Old Testament stories rather than just one as prefiguring a New-Testament story.

In the illustration below, the wisdom of the Magi in paying honor to the “new king born of the Jews, David’s royal son,” is seen to be anticipated on the left by the wisdom of Abner, formerly a confederate of Saul, in showing his fealty to King David (2 Samuel 3:6-21), and on the right by the Gentile Queen of Sheba who comes to consult the wisdom of Solomon (1 Kings 10:1-13; cf. Matthew 12:42).

Another thirteenth-century example is the beautifully illuminated Bible moralisée, also a teaching Bible. Featured below is a page from that work that gives a good sense of its more extensive narrative design, in this case kept to single pairings for the most part.

In this series of images on one page from the Bible moralisée, the story of Ruth the Moabitess and Boaz, the “kinsman redeemer,” anticipates the redemption of Israel and the Gentiles by Jesus, picking up the theme in both Testaments of spiritual marriage between the Lord and his people. Yet even stories of shameful deeds in the Old Testament (the adultery of David and Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah) could likewise be read typologically into the New Testament and moralized, as in this example from the Sainte Chapelle windows in Paris, precisely echoing the typological method and design of the Bible moralisée.

In modern art there are striking examples of further innovation on biblical typology, casting new light on the relationship between Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. One of those treated in The Beauty of Holiness is this lithograph of the mid 1960s by Marc Chagall:

Here the traditional Jewish interpretation of the Akedah story, the binding and almost sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22) is in the foreground, with slight variations. The lamb stands waiting at the foot of a tree rather than caught in a thicket, whilst in the background is an image of Jesus carrying his Cross. The grief of Mary near the Cross is mirrored in the foreground grief of Sarah beside the tree. Chagall, born of Hasidic Jews, here connects faith in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52-53 to Jesus as to the whole story of the Jewish people from Abraham and Isaac to the Holocaust, in this way reclaiming Jesus for Judaism. Whereas the bulk of Christian typology connects Christians to the Jewish story, Chagall’s typology connects the Hebrew Scriptures to the New Testament by using the latter to lay claim to it from a Jewish point of view. The effect is to cause both Jewish and Christian viewers of his art to do a ‘double-take,’ to pause and reflect in a new way on the relationships between Jew and Gentile in biblical history.

Such are the artworks and their stories, from the Tabernacle in the wilderness to the great medieval cathedrals, and from the Catacombs to Chagall, which In the Beauty of Holiness seeks to understand and celebrate.


David Lyle Jeffrey: In the Beauty of Holiness, Art and the Bible in Western Culture, Eerdmans, 2017. Beauty is a highly significant subject in the Bible. So is holiness. In this study of Christian fine art David Lyle Jeffrey explores the relationship between beauty and holiness as he integrates aesthetic perspectives from the ancient Hebrew Scriptures through Augustine, Aquinas, and Kant down to contemporary philosophers of art. Incorporating sample artworks ranging from the Roman catacombs to Marc Chagall, Jeffrey demonstrates that the Bible has consistently been the most profound and productive resource for the visual arts in the West. He contextualizes Western European art from the second century through the twenty-first in relation not only to the biblical narrative but also to liturgy and historical theology. Lavishly illustrated with more than one hundred masterworks, In the Beauty of Holiness is ideally suited to students of Christian fine art and to general readers wanting to better understand the story of Christian art through the centuries. 

David Lyle Jeffrey, FRSC is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities, Honors Program and Senior Fellow, Baylor Institute for Studies in Religion, Baylor University, Waco, TX and Guest Professor, Peking University.


25 March 2020 / Sacred Geometry in Christian Art

by Sophie Hacker

This blog unravels aspects of sacred geometry and how it has inspired art and architecture for millennia. 


22 February 2020 / Between East and West

By Kaori Homma

Being in this limbo between day and night makes me question, “Where does the east end and the west start?”


15 February 2020 / Imagination at Play

by Marianne Lettieri

To deny ourselves time to laugh, be with family and friends, and fuel our passions, we get caught in what Cameron calls the “treadmill of virtuous production.”


07 December 2019 / ArtWay Newsletter 2019

An update by our editor-in-chief 
the ArtWay List of Books 2019


16 November 2019 / Scottish Miracles and Parables Exhibition

Alan Wilson: "Can there be a renewal of Christian tradition in Scottish art, where ambitious artists create from a heartfelt faith, committed to their Lord and saviour as well as their craft?"


23 September 2019 / Dal Schindell Tribute

While Dal’s ads and sense of humour became the stuff of legends, it was his influence on the arts at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada that may be his biggest legacy. 


04 September 2019 / The Aesthetics of John Calvin

Calvin stated that 'the faithful see sparks of God's glory, as it were, glittering in every created thing. The world was no doubt made, that it might be the theater of divine glory.'


31 July 2019 / The Legend of the Artist

by Beat Rink

The image of the 'divine' artist becomes so dominant that artists take their orientation from it and lead their lives accordingly.


02 July 2019 / Quotes by Tim Keller

Many “Christian art” productions are in reality just ways of pulling artists out of the world and into the Christian subculture.


08 June 2019 / The Chaiya Art Awards

by Jonathan Evens

The Chaiya Art Awards 2018 proved hugely popular, with over 450 entries and more than 2,700 exhibition visitors.


29 May 2019 / Art Stations of the Cross: Reflections

by Lieke Wynia

In its engagement with both Biblical and contemporary forms of suffering, the exhibition addressed complex topical issues without losing a sense of hope out of sight.


03 May 2019 / Marianne Lettieri: Relics Reborn

Items that show the patina of time and reveal the wear and tear of human interaction are carriers of personal and collective history. 


27 April 2019 / Franciscan and Dominican Arts of Devotion

by John Skillen 

This manner of prayer stirs up devotion, the soul stirring the body, and the body stirring the soul.


13 March 2019 / Makoto Fujimura and the Culture Care Movement

by Victoria Emily Jones

Culture care is a generative approach to culture that brings bouquets of flowers into a culture bereft of beauty.


08 January 2019 / Building a Portfolio of People

by Marianne Lettieri

Besides hard work in the studio, networking may be the single most important skill for a sustainable art practice.


01 December 2018 / ArtWay Newsletter December 2018

ArtWay has Special Plans for 2019!

After London, Washington D.C. and New York the city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands is now the anticipated location for a prominent art exhibition with the title Art Stations of the Cross.


11 October 2018 / The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe

Book Review by Jonathan Evens

The significance and spirituality of the work is made clear in ways which counteract the stereotype of mass production of a static style.


13 September 2018 / A Visit to the Studio of Georges Rouault

by Jim Alimena

Everything we saw and learned reinforced my picture of a great man of faith and a great artist. 


09 August 2018 / With Opened Eyes: Representational Art

by Ydi Coetsee

How do we respond to the ‘lost innocence’ of representational art? 


13 July 2018 / True Spirituality in the Arts

by Edith Reitsema

Living in Christ should lead us away from living with a segregated view of life, having a sacred-secular split. 


17 May 2018 / Beholding Christ in African American Art

Book review by Victoria Emily Jones

One of the hallmarks of Beholding Christ is the diversity of styles, media, and denominational affiliations represented.


23 April 2018 / Short Introduction to Hans Rookmaaker

by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker

On the occasion of the establishment of the Rookmaaker Jazz Scholarship at Covenant College, Chattanooga, Tennessee, 12 March 2018


04 April 2018 / International Art Residency in India

Art for Change, a New Delhi based arts organization with a vision to see art shape society with beauty and truth, will be running its 6th annual International Artist Residency in November 2018.


15 March 2018 / The Stations of the Cross at Blackburn Cathedral

by Penny Warden  

Perhaps the central challenge for the artist in imaging the body of Christ is the problem of representing the dual natures of the doctrine of the incarnation.


23 February 2018 / Between the Shadow and the Light

By Rachel Hostetter Smith

In June 2013 a group of twenty North American and African artists from six African countries met for two weeks of intensive engagement with South Africa.


30 January 2018 / Sacred Geometry in Christian Art

by Sophie Hacker

This blog unravels aspects of sacred geometry and how it has inspired art and architecture for millennia. 


01 January 2018 / Jonathan Evens writes about Central Saint Martins

Why would Central Saint Martins, a world-famous arts and design college and part of University of the Arts London, choose to show work by its graduates in a church?


06 December 2017 / ArtWay Newsletter December, 2017

ArtWay's Chairman Wim Eikelboom: "The visual arts cultivate a fresh and renewed view of deeply entrenched values. That is why ArtWay is happy to provide an online platform for art old and new."


14 November 2017 / The Moral Imagination: Art and Peacebuilding

In the context of conflict transformation the key purpose of creative expression is to provide a venue for people to tell their stories, and for their stories to be heard.


24 October 2017 / Bruce Herman: Ut pictura poesis?

For the last couple hundred of years the arts have largely been in "experimentation mode"—moving away from the humble business of craft and service toward ideas, issues, and theory.


08 September 2017 / David Taylor: The Aesthetics of John Calvin

Calvin stated that 'the faithful see sparks of God's glory, as it were, glittering in every created thing. The world was no doubt made, that it might be the theater of divine glory.'


23 August 2017 / ​Reconstructed by Anikó Ouweneel

A much talked-about exposition in the NoordBrabants Museum in The Netherlands showed works by modern and contemporary Dutch artists inspired by traditional Catholic statues of Christ and the saints. 


04 July 2017 / Pilgrimage to Venice – The Venice Biennale 2017

When I start to look at the art works, I notice a strange rift between this pleasant environment and the angst and political engagement present in the works of the artists. 


24 June 2017 / Collecting as a Calling

After many years of compiling a collection of religious art, I have come to realize that collecting is a calling. I feel strongly that our collection has real value and that it is a valuable ministry. 


02 June 2017 / I Believe in Contemporary Art

By Alastair Gordon

In recent years there has been a growing interest in questions of religion in contemporary art. Is it just a passing fad or signs of renewed faith in art? 


04 April 2017 / Stations of the Cross - Washington, DC 2017

by Aaron Rosen

We realized that the Stations needed to speak to the acute anxiety facing so many minorities in today’s America and beyond. 


07 March 2017 / Socially Engaged Art

A discussion starter by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin

Growing dissatisfaction with an out-of-touch, elite and market driven art world has led artists to turn to socially engaged art. 


01 February 2017 / Theodore Prescott: Inside Sagrada Familia

The columns resemble the trunks of trees. Gaudi conceived of the whole interior as a forest, where the nave ceiling would invoke the image of an arboreal canopy.


03 January 2017 / Steve Scott tells about his trips to Bali

In the Balinese shadow play the puppet master pulls from a repertoire of traditional tales and retells them with an emphasis on contemporary moral and spiritual lessons. 


09 December 2016 / Newsletter ArtWay December 2016

Like an imitation of a good thing past, these days of darkness surely will not last. Jesus was here and he is coming again, to lead us to the festival of friends.


01 November 2016 / LAbri for Beginners

What is the role of the Christian artist? Is it not to ‘re-transcendentalise’ the transcendent, to discern what is good in culture, and to subvert what is not with a prophetic voice?


30 September 2016 / Book Review by Jonathan Evens

Jonathan Koestlé-Cate, Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace - Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art, Routledge, 2016.


01 September 2016 / Review: Modern art and the life of a culture

The authors say they want to help the Christian community recognize the issues raised in modern art and to do so in ways that are charitable and irenic. But I did not find them so. Their representation of Rookmaaker seems uncharitable and at times even misleading. 


29 July 2016 / Victoria Emily Jones on Disciplining our Eyes

There’s nothing inherently wrong with images—creating or consuming. In fact, we need them. But we also need to beware of the propensity they have to plant themselves firmly in our minds. 


30 June 2016 / Aniko Ouweneel on What is Christian Art?

Pekka Hannula challenges the spectator to search for the source of the breath we breathe, the source of what makes life worth living, the source of our longing for the victory of redemptive harmony.


09 June 2016 / Theodore Prescott: The Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia is a visual encyclopedia of Christian narrative and Catholic doctrine as Gaudi sought to embody the faith through images, symbols, and expressive forms.


19 May 2016 / Edward Knippers: Do Clothes make the Man?

Since the body is the one common denominator for all of humankind, why do we fear to uncover it? Why is public nudity a shock or even a personal affront?


27 April 2016 / Alexandra Harper: Culture Care

Culture Care is an invitation to create space within the local church to invest our talents, time and tithes in works that lean into the Kingdom of God as creative agents of shalom. 


06 April 2016 / Jonathan Evens on Contemporary Commissions

The issue of commissioning secular artists versus artists of faith represents false division and unnecessary debate. The reality is that both have resulted in successes and failures.


12 March 2016 / Betty Spackman: Creativity and Depression

When our whole being is wired to fly outside the box, life can become a very big challenge. To carve oneself into a square peg for the square holes of society, when you are a round peg, is painful to say the least.


24 February 2016 / Jim Watkins: Augustine and the Senses

Augustine is not saying that sensual pleasure is bad, but that it is a mixed good. As his Confessions so clearly show, Augustine is painfully aware of how easily he can take something good and turn it into something bad. 


11 February 2016 / H.R. Rookmaaker: Does Art Need Justification?

Art is not a religion, nor an activity relegated to a chosen few, nor a mere worldly, superfluous affair. None of these views of art does justice to the creativity with which God has endowed man.


26 January 2016 / Ned Bustard: The Bible is Not Safe

Revealed is intended to provoke surprise, even shock. It shows that the Bible is a book about ordinary people, who are not only spiritual beings, but also greedy, needy, hateful, hopeful, selfish, and sexual.


14 January 2016 / Painting by Nanias Maira from Papua New Guinea

In 2011 Wycliffe missionary Peter Brook commissioned artist Nanias Maira, who belongs to the Kwoma people group of northwestern Papua New Guinea, to paint Bible stories in the traditional style for which he is locally known.