Theology and Art

"You must not make a carved image for yourself, nor the likeness of anything in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth." Exodus 20:4

The biblical prohibition of any representation of God has had a profound effect on the Jews and the Muslims down to the present day and in the early centuries of the life of the Christian Church Christians too lived under the same constraint. When Constantine's sister wanted a portrait of Christ, Eusebius of Caesarea was swift to point out to her why such a thing would be highly undesirable. However, protest against attempts to christianize art were in the end to prove vain.

In spite of the excesses of iconoclasts in centuries yet to come, in the period when the Church was struggling with its understanding of the Person of Christ, there was also a growth of iconography, which culminated in John of Damascus' defence of icons on the basis of the Incarnation.

"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." [John 1:14] "I do not worship matter," says John, "but I worship the Creator of matter who for my sake became material and accepted to dwell in matter and who through matter effected my salvation."

So it is possible to say something important about God through the visual arts as well as through the spoken and printed word. The Word can take concrete form. Early representations of Christ when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire tended to present him as the Christ of Glory, with the insignia and trappings of worldly power, privilege and rank. That is not a popular picture of him today, but it does serve to remind us that any visual presentation of him will contain its own theology. It will show the artist's understanding of what God is like.

Many will be surprised that the Methodist Church has an art collection.

It is the product of the vision and enterprise of two people who found some measure of fulfilment in its selection and display.

It focuses on episodes in the life of Christ and invites the viewer to look through the medium to the God who can reveal himself not only through the spoken word but also through material, created things.

It is an invitation to exercise our imaginations, to learn more about the richness of God's being, and to offer him glory and praise.

John B Taylor
President of the Methodist Conference 1997-98
Former Chair of the Liverpool District of the Methodist Church