Text and Image: How Biblical Art Points us to Worship
Art, in the strict sense of created images, often passes by my eyes with little effect. I respect true ability in this area. I wish I could see in paintings and sculptures the multi-layers of meaning and creativity. Yet my few experiences in art museums or galleries often become long day dreams awaiting the end of the visit.
Recently, my normal encounters with art were push aside. Baylor University currently displays the collections of two artists, Marc Chagall and Georges Rouault, whose displayed collections focus on Scripture and on the suffering of Jesus Christ. The work of Chagall especially moved my mind and heart in ways art has not done before. The work in itself and the meaning its effect gives both deserve contemplation.
Chagall’s display, The Bible, contains more than one hundred etchings that scan the breadth of the Old Testament. The nature of etching contains an ethereal quality and Chagall’s work shows a created world in deep connection with its supernatural Creator. These images unite with the text of Scripture to relate the truths found in God’s Word. God is portrayed as light and as the Hebrew divine name: YHWH. He is the light that said, “Let there be light.” He is the Word who spoke into existence all that is. The use of a word to represent God also tells of His nature in distinction to the world. God is wholly other than His creation yet he is making himself known to that creation by means of words.
Even though Chagall was Jewish, his faithfulness to the Old Testament message reveals many themes pointing to Christ. Covenant faithfulness permeates the paintings, from the image for the circumcision of Isaac to promises of God’s faithfulness to Israel exiled in Babylon. These themes of faithfulness and redemption find their ultimate fulfillment in the Son of God. Further, the etchings display of the first Passover, with its sacrificed lamb and shed blood, are images we can look to and see our Savior.
While revealing God and the Gospel, Chagall’s paintings aid in humanizing Biblical characters often raised to superhuman heights. In one etching, we see Abraham weeping over the dead body of Sarah. Rebecca is seen mischievously hiding behind a table, watching to see if Isaac will mistakenly bless Jacob instead of Essau. Jeremiah, “the Weeping Prophet,” sheds tears for Israel in a picture that gives added heart to the sadness he expresses in Scriptural words.
In these etchings, the image drove me back to the text. The text then pushed me back toward the image. In so doing, I gained a new view of many Bible stories and at times was pointed to parts of the text I had failed to notice in the past. The two mediums of text and image were not in conflict but in cooperation toward a fuller understanding of the messages and deeds represented.
As I contemplated this relationship between text and image, I thought of the worship of Christ’s Church. In our congregational worship, the Gospel is presented to us in the form of the reading and preaching of Scripture. These are words declaring who God is and what He has done for our redemption and His glory.
Yet words are not the only display of God and His Gospel. We also have the sacraments, namely Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In Baptism, our burial and resurrection with Christ, our cleansing from the evil of sin are displayed. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s death is seen and his provision for us in that act made visible. These are not words but images of the Gospel. They are meant in part to drive us back to the text and for the text to be seen as displayed in those images. The Word preached and displayed confronts and encourages us from multiple angles, utilizing God’s creation of sight, sound, taste, and touch to make Himself and His greatness known to his Body.
Thus, the interaction of text and image in Chagall pointed me toward a similar interaction in worship. Though I cannot be sure that all art will now begin to be understandable and enjoyable to my untrained eye, I have found a new respect for its role in Christian witness and worship. Images can certainly be used in wrong ways and for wrong purposes in the Church. However, Chagall’s presentation of the Old Testament gives an example of Biblical knowledge and Godly reverence that Believers can esteem, use, and hopefully imitate for the worship and glory of the Triune God.
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