Graven Images and Kists o Whistles

Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, University Chaplain

4 March 2018

Readings: Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-22

Houston, we have a problem.
OK, so the TheoArtistry Festival is a long way from the Apollo 13 mission to land on the moon. But there is a problem. Over the next three days, audiences will hear new compositions exploring the encounter of God with humanity, and hear poets, composers, musicians and theologians discuss the making of art in response to scripture and faith. The project is summed up by Dr George Corbett, a Lecturer in St Mary’s, and a preacher here in December:
There is a sense, I think, in which music can be transformed by its encounter with Christianity and come not to serve theology, but to be theology or, more exactly, theoartistry, insofar as it may reveal God in a new way through artistry.
So what’s the problem?

Well, the Christianity which music and the other arts encounter seeks to be faithful to scripture. And one of the most famous passages in the Bible is one we heard earlier, the Ten Commandments, the pinnacle of the law given to Moses for the children of Israel. These commandments have shaped not only the Jewish religion, but the Christian faith, and much of the social, moral and legal codes which have emerged in western civilisation. v. 4, usually understood as the second commandment, says:
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.
But this prohibition may be more familiar in the King James Version:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.

Here the older translation is closer to the literal meaning of the Hebrew, pesel, whose root means to carve or to cut – like modern engrave. But throughout the scriptures the force of the term is less a carved object than any object which is an idolatrous representation of deity – whether carved, moulded, or painted. The threefold prohibition – anything in heaven, earth or water – appears to cover images of the sun, moon or stars; of animals or human beings; of dragons or fish. This marks out the Hebrew approach to God from those of their neighbours in the Ancient Near East where figural representations of divinity were much more commonplace, such as of Baal, El, and Asherah.

If Christianity had no other influences than its Jewish inheritance, it may well feel quite different. But there have been countless other influences, as it spread from Jerusalem, as Gentiles were converted, and as it took root in pagan cultures. For example, the Egyptian custom of portraits of the dead on mummies, Greek sculptures of the gods, and Roman representations of divinities in their temples influenced the early church. Before long there were frescos of Jesus in the catacombs, mosaics of the Trinity in churches, statues of saints and of Mary adorning sacred spaces.

But what about the prohibition on graven images? Here there was rather a good piece of theological sleight of hand. Many in the Western Church interpreted the second commandment – no graven images – as a gloss on the first – You shall have no other gods before me. In other words, the prohibition only applies to false gods, not to depictions of the Christian God, the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

But in more eastern parts of the Christian world, centred on Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul in Turkey) tensions remained, which came to a head in the Iconoclasm debates between about 720 and 840 AD. The Eastern fashion was not for graven images but for painted ones – icons, painted images of God, Mary, the saints and biblical scenes, at home and in churches – as well as mosaics in churches, often in rich gold material. However, significant voices opposed to icons and mosaics emerged. They cited the prohibition on graven images. They may also have been influenced by the rise of Islam which took a similarly negative view of representations of the divine, encouraging some to become Iconoclasts – literally, image-breakers. Perhaps the most famous example of Iconoclasm is the Hagia Eirene Church in Istanbul. It’s now a concert hall, and is pictured on the order of service. In the semi-dome in the apse, a typical Eastern church would have a mosaic of Christ or perhaps of Mary – but here, there is nothing but a giant cross. An empty cross, without depicting the crucified Son of God.

But Iconoclasm did not win the day. Orthodoxy re-asserted itself, and icons returned to the mainstream, where they remain in Eastern Christianity. The Orthodox arguments proved persuasive. God is mysterious, and ultimately unknowable in himself. God is at best knowable through created things such as icons, which illuminate and intensify our vision of God. Indeed, to the Orthodox understanding, the art of icons has become theology, and the artists are known as theologians.

TheoArtistry then was established in the East, in Constantinople. The West had its own crisis, which came later. If you were thinking that the image of the cross in that 8th Century Church in Istanbul was pretty Protestant, you’d be right. The Reformation, whose 500th anniversary we commemorated last year, was a return to the sources, to scripture. The second commandment, about graven images, was returned to its own place again, no longer subsumed to the first. Reformers accused church imagery, stained glass and statuary, frescoes, crucifixes and rood screens as idolatry, as being worship of things not God, as a veneration of Mary and saints rather than the Trinitarian God. Moreover, what paid for this art? The offerings of the people, through pilgrimage and indulgences, seen by many reformers as a corrupt abuse of the people. And so the removal and even destruction of Christian art was seen as a duty. There is an echo here of Jesus’ cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem, which we heard earlier, driving out corruption, returning the Temple to its purpose of prayer.

We are in a chapel affected by this movement. The outside of St Salvator’s Chapel has niches whose statues have disappeared. The rood screen has gone; gone the chantry chapels; gone the resplendent altar. The Cathedral is even more obviously bare. I took a dramatic picture of it on Thursday, against a sky promising more snow, but what makes it so dramatic is that it is a ruin.

What replaced the statues, the paintings, the carvings? In many churches – words. Without a trace of irony, what were written in the church chancels and apses were the Ten Commandments, a verbal reminder of the prohibition on graven images reinforcing the disappearance of the same.

You might say – I still don’t see the problem with new music, with TheoArtistry of that sort. And indeed, music goes both ways. The Protestant Lutheran Bach offered rich adornment to sacred texts in his music. But Reformed, Calvinist Scotland turned its face away from decoration in music as yet another graven image, or form of idolatry. Hymns were shunned in favour of psalms – from scripture. They were sung in the vernacular, in simple, metrical forms. There were for many years a mere dozen melodies commonly used. Instruments were removed from churches, or never introduced. John Knox, the principal Scottish Reformer, derided the organ as a kist o whistles. (A kist is a chest or a trunk.) And so kists o whistles remained rare: much more common was the precentor, a man who would sing out the line of the psalm for the congregation to follow. This pulpit retains its precentor’s stall. It was only in the 19th and 20th Centuries that organs made a comeback.

This may seem to have been a kist o whistle-stop tour of art and Christianity, but I think key themes are emerging, or perhaps key tensions. By tensions I mean that the Christian faith expresses different approaches sometimes simultaneously which do not always fit well together. The key tensions here are: icon or idol? image or word? Hebrew or Greek? veneration leading to God, or adoration obscuring God? TheoArtistry or sinful devilry?

In the midst of these tensions, how can we know what God may be saying to us today – through these scriptures, and perhaps in art? I think it is important not to lose the essence of the commandment. Worshipping what is not God remains deeply unhealthy, displaying and fostering selfishness, partiality, pride and injustice. There are good arguments for seeing idolatry at the root of war, hunger and environmental catastrophe.

But art, Christian art and artistry, is not generally self-worship, but rather a way in which we finite creatures can approach the divine, by image, metaphor, parallel, suggestion, echo. A proper humility is helpful here: perhaps art can capture ultimate reality no more successfully than the word. But I love this sentence from a letter by the French novelist Flaubert: Of all lies, art is the least untrue. If so, then it is a Christian duty to let the arts flourish. I would argue that this applies particularly to music. Aldous Huxley once said that After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music. And I for one am tempted to agree.

The heart of all iconoclasm is a blunt binary between godly and sinful, with all representation falling into the sinful category. But there are more subtle distinctions to be made in this wonderful created realm of ours. After all, God could be described as a supreme artist, fashioning creation with shape, colour, heat, sound, light and movement, beauty and order. And so it is at least possible that our artistic endeavours, if rightly intended, far from being sinful, will please God, our maker and redeemer. Perhaps our problem, like a dissonant chord, has been resolved.