When art becomes idolatry

Michelangelo's_Pieta_5450_cropncleaned_editA visit to just about any of the churches in Rome will allow the visitor to see brilliant works of art. Much time and money has been invested in statuary, paintings, mosaics, and marble decor among other artistic delights. There are representations of Biblical scenes and people; there are also statues of former church leaders and saints.

It seems to me that one aspect of being made in the image of God is that man was created to create. When we create, we are following in the footsteps of our creator. There is something good about creation, whether it is God’s creation ex nihilo, or if it is a work of art, literature or music produced by man.

Creativity is a form of worship. We ascribe worth by imitating the one we worship. I believe that this is true even when the artist does not acknowledge his dependence on his Creator God. By giving vent to his artistic skills, the artist is displaying that which was given him by his Creator.

Christians, who have been gifted in the arts, have the opportunity (obligation?) to use their artistic talents as an expression of worship. The Church should be providing a forum for those gifts to be used for worship. I think that the Roman church has gotten this part right.

From my recent visit to Rome, however, I need to offer a caution. While visiting the churches, I witnessed people venerating statues and paintings. I saw one man kissing the hands of a statue of a saint. Candles could be purchased and burned in front of many of these pieces of art, which I suppose to be some form of veneration. Much of what I observed seems misguided at best and idolatrous at worst.

How is a balance to be maintained? How can we appreciate the art and the artist without moving toward idolatry? Perhaps the answer lies in an understanding that all of the art, no matter how permanent it appears now, will one day all be consumed (see 2 Peter 3:10-11). While good art should be valued as such, it does not have ultimate value, it will not be carried into eternity.

Perhaps this gives us a clue as to the means of valuing art. Should we ascribe value to art by whether it encourages us to holiness and right living? After all, it is human beings alone that pass from this temporal existence into eternity.

What are your thoughts? How do we value art and avoid the danger of idolatry? Is there a difference between religious art and “secular” art?