Good Depictions of God - Marleen Hengelaar
A Vision Shared
by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker
What circumstances provide art with its strongest capacity to give visibility to God?
Good art does not just appear out of thin air. There need to be positive circumstances for it to come about. This is true also for depictions of God. What is needed for the emergence of good and strong images of God?
First of all, there needs to be an informed biblical understanding of who God is. That may seem obvious, but history shows that this is very important. The sweet depictions of Jesus that followed in the footsteps of Danish sculptor Albert Bertel Thorvaldsen in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would not have come about if the Enlightenment had not weakened the common understanding of God. Or Jesus would not have been portrayed as a thin white ghost hovering in the woods, as he was on the cover of a recent Dutch publication on the presence of God.1
Another prerequisite for quality artistic portrayals of God is that the person who makes the work should be a gifted artist. There are many artworks in which God is portrayed adequately, but the ones that stand out, like the Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt, or the Vision of Ezechiel by Raphael, are the products of great skill and genius.
It may be argued, however, that these great works of art did not only result from great artistic talent and craftsmanship, but that they were also the product of a living faith. God needs to be a living reality for the artist for him or her to create new, striking, and emotionally deep portrayals.
Moreover, the great biblical art of the past did not just happen overnight, but emerged from a long and living tradition. One generation built on the former and passed its new discoveries and insights on to the next. In this way a common understanding of the biblical stories, a shared language of symbolism and conventions, formed the framework within which the artist could work. Artists knew their work would be understood, but also that new insights could arise by adding their own touch to the standard way of depiction. Today, Christian artists have to do without such a framework to which they can add their own contribution, unless they choose to make icons or adhere to the old iconography of the biblical art of the West. This makes the depiction of biblical themes harder; one needs to find one’s own way; the wheel needs to be invented over and over again. This is not an impossible task, however, and one could even say that the lack of a living tradition has made for some wonderfully fresh and new depictions of God.
One of the first artists to come up with something totally new was the nineteenth-century German Lutheran painter Caspar David Friedrich, who used the nature symbolism of the Romantic era to express his Christian worldview. I find his Frau in der Morgensonne a very stunning portrayal of the presence of God, while the woman opens herself to the light and warmth of the sun in a reverent, receiving gesture. In the twentieth century, the German Expressionist Ernst Barlach created a highly original sculpture of God the Father, whose hands are beckoning and longing for involvement in the world, yet his eyes are averted, as if he were unable to keep on looking at all that is done on the earth of his hands. When it comes to our own time, the American artist Mary McCleary strikingly portrays God’s presence and nearness by putting eyes all over many of her works. She comments: “I needed a metaphor for God’s omniscience and omnipresence within the Biblical narratives I was exploring. The eyes were a reminder that He is in charge, superintending over events.”2 Another contemporary American, Bruce Herman in his Betrothed (which I think reaches back to the old way of depicting the Annunciation) hints at God’s presence and love by suggesting the streaming down of light with just a few suggestive lines. These are just a few examples of artists who have successfully created new ways of seeing God; many others could be given.
Another circumstance that is important for biblical art to blossom is a common understanding that these kinds of works are important or even allowed. This has not been the case, for example, in the Protestant part of the Netherlands. In the last century there were very few Dutch Protestant artists who made biblical art or portrayed spiritual themes. Landscapes, still lives, and portraits were the preferred genres for their work. It must be added, however, that these images of creation and the beauty of this world also might be thought of as pointing to God, although indirectly. But in recent years this situation has slowly started to change; it is not “not done” anymore to deal with spiritual themes and biblical subjects, although the quality of the works is understandably not (yet) uniformly high. What this means, however, is that there needs to be a shared vision that there is a place for biblical and explicitly spiritual works; in other words, there needs to be a theology that supports this kind of art. Only then will a community come into being that upholds and encourages the makers of these works, that gives them commissions and buys their work, which are necessary prerequisites for biblical art in general and depictions of God in particular to bud and blossom.
Published in Mel Ahlborn and Ken Arnold (ed.): Visio Divina. A Reader in Faith and Visual Arts, LeaderResources – Leeds, MA, 2009.
1. Signa Bodishbaugh: Op weg naar heelheid in Christus, Coconut – Almere, 2003.
2. James Romaine (ed.): Objects of Grace. Conversations on Creativity and Faith, Square Halo Books – Baltimore, 2002