Morning Worship: Good religious art takes us to difficult places, unsettles our understanding of God

In 2014, the Rev. James Walters fulfilled a desire to visit Belgium and, specifically, the Ghent Altarpiece in the Cathedral of Saint Bavo.

“It did not disappoint,” he said. He stood for an hour looking at one of the earliest oil paintings in existence; it was the beginning of realism in art.

“It stands in the tradition of beautiful things made to adore God,” Walters said.

Walters concluded his week of preaching at the 9:15 a.m. Friday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. The title of his sermon was “Was Jerusalem Builded Here?” and his text was Exodus 31:1-11, the call of Bezalel and Oholiab to make art and artifacts for the Temple.

Jan and Hubert van Eyck created the Ghent Altarpiece. Napoleon stole the altarpiece, and Hitler and Göering coveted it. The work underwent extensive restoration after World War II.

“This [the altarpiece] was Europe at the beginning of the Enlightenment,” Walters said. “In the very top is God the Father in purple robes and a papal tiara. On either side of him are Mary and John the Baptist — the ideal man and woman.”

There are panels with a heavenly choir and an organ to connect heaven and earth with music, he said. The European cities are represented.

“Bezalel was gifted by God to create beautiful objects and inspired by the creative spirit, the ruach, that hovered over the creation of the world,” Walters said. “Europe has had many Belzalels since who built many cathedrals and temples and they house the finest art and music; I love it. I even commissioned a stained glass window for the LSE, but I am a little troubled by the misconceptions that the arts feed to us about ourselves and the God we are honoring.”

He quoted Terry Eagleton, British literary theorist and public intellectual, who said that humanity has made art a viceroy for God. It bred an aesthetic to supplant God. Art is an outpost of enchantment in a spiritual desert, but, “when art becomes religion, it is a self-serving cult,” Walters said.

“It is unlikely to challenge us — unlikely to bring us into contact with tax collectors and prostitutes. It is available to the few,” he said. “It has been given unbearable spiritual significance. I say love it but it is not God.”

Good, religious art takes us to difficult places in our own experiences and it unsettles our understanding of God, he said.

Picasso’s “Guernica” is an example of the first, Walters said. It is an iconic representation of what civilized governments were creating in the 1930s.

“When Picasso’s studio was raided by the Gestapo, an officer picked up a postcard [of “Guernica”] and said, ‘Did you do this?’ Picasso replied, ‘No, you did,’ ” Walters said.

Henry Moore’s sculptures are an example of how art unsettles our understanding of God, in his representation of the divine and the erotic, he said.

“These two themes captivated me as I looked at the Ghent altarpiece for an hour,” Walters said. “It flatters the patron who is in the painting, and shows the human renaissance.

“But redemption is the overall theme, and it shows what and who needs to be redeemed. There are panels for Adam and Eve; they are real people who came into the studio to pose. They are vulnerable and exposed and show true human frailty and shame. They show that all culture is an inadequate fig leaf. These panels take us to difficult places of our own experience.”

But there is also an unsettling vision of God in the altarpiece.

Beneath the panel of God is a panel showing people coming from the four corners of the earth to worship a bleeding lamb on a table. The lamb is standing with blood coming from its heart like a fountain into the cup of salvation.

“God incarnate was more unsettling,” he said. “Here was the mystic lamb who takes away the sin of the world.

“I realized that this is the best of the European artistic tradition and it gives glory to God and enhances our worship. There is no idolatry or vanity; it reveals human frailty and glory. God has entered into the heart of our suffering. The allegory of Europe is that when it tried to share its culture, learning and civilization, it excelled. But it was vain and oppressive when it worshipped its own achievements. We see the frailty of Adam and Eve in our response to immigration, multiculturalism, religious tolerance. The bleeding lamb says we are formed by the Gospel. We have to take our heritage and discover new ways and places to use it.”

In closing he quoted William Blake’s poem “The New Jerusalem”:

“And was the holy Lamb of God

On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the countenance divine

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among these dark Satanic mills?”

The Rev. James Hubbard presided. Sallie Holder, an active  member of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Alumni Association and Guild of the Seven Seals and active in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship coordinator, directed the Motet Choir. The choir sang “With a Voice for Singing” by Martin Shaw. The Alison and Craig Marthinsen Endowment for the Department of Religion supported this week’s services.