This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for April 1, 2021, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
As a retired pastor, I miss being an active part of Holy Week and Easter Sunday. Tonight is Maundy Thursday, or Holy Thursday, a very important worship time for many Christians, including Lutherans. The next day is Good Friday, with many churches holding Tenebrae services, as candles are extinguished, and the cross is in prominent focus. It can be a very touching visual experience. Then Easter Sunday bursts forth in resplendent light and beauty!
Searching for ways to present the Gospel to the world, Christian leaders and teachers have used visuals to tell the story of Salvation. For Centuries, Lutherans have used religious art for such a purpose, calling upon the artistic talents of painters, sculptors and stained-glass artists to present the Gospel in vivid and beautiful ways. Our Savior Lutheran Church in Houston has some of the most beautiful paintings and statuary you will find anywhere. Over the centuries, Roman Catholic artists have created splendid statues, paintings and mosaics in Catholic churches throughout the world, some like those of Michelangelo, considered masterpieces. The sun shining through stained glass windows creates marvelous effects of light and color, light being a major symbol of God and His Holy Word.
Rembrandt, the famous Protestant artist, painted his “Head of Christ” in 1648, a depiction that shows Jesus looking very humble and very sad. Leonardo da Vinci, officially a Catholic anyway, painted our Lord with His eyes closed, and with almost blonde hair and light skin. Jesus seemed sad or very pensive. This may have been the inspiration for other paintings of Jesus by other artists. I’m sure that believers from the earliest of Christian times have been very interested in what Jesus looked like, and though no one knows for sure, folks are still curious.
The appeal of these Gospel visuals is widespread, even among folks whose churches normally don’t use visuals very much. Huge numbers of people from all over take the “Painted Churches in Texas” tour of churches known for their artistic beauty. Our Lutheran church is Serbin is on that tour, as are numerous Catholic churches. Last week, a photo of the interior of Holy Cross Catholic Church in East Bernard was posted on Texas Church History, probably as much for its interior beauty as for its history.
Many of us are not very familiar with the radiant paintings found in Eastern Orthodox Churches, Russian Orthodox Churches, Greek Orthodox Churches, and other Orthodox denominations. I use the adjective “radiant” to describe them, because they are painted to be reflections of light. They are called “icons” and each is regarded by the faithful as “a visible gospel.” They are paintings of Jesus, as well as of St. Mary, and the other Saints; the faces are always painted full front or three-quarters, never in profile. An ancient Orthodox monk described icons as “Holy Doors.”
The icon paintings of Jesus do not seem particularly realistic, nor do you see the human side of Jesus, as you do in Catholic and Lutheran paintings, where you see the agony in Jesus’ face as he bears the crown of thorns on the cross. Jesus has both a divine nature and a human nature, so the icon attempts to show the divine light, beauty, and love emanating from within Jesus.
The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt is believed to be the oldest denomination in the world. They differ from the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches in a number of ways, but what I call their ancient “pre-icon” icon art seems like rudimentary icons. All the Orthodox Churches, including the Coptic, depict Jesus with dark skin, dark eyes and dark hair.
Icon painters did not sign their paintings, as who painted the work was not important other than that he was an official iconographer. The icon of Christ Pantokrator (Christ All-Powerful or Christ in Majesty) is no doubt the most loved of the many icons, and versions of it were passed on from icon painter to icon painter. It depicts Christ holding the New Testament in his left hand and offering a blessing with His right hand. His eyes are extremely riveting.
During the Medieval Era and during the Reformation, most people could not read or write; therefore, the “Visual Gospel” was necessary to “preach” the Gospel. For centuries, Christian leaders and teachers have tried to find ways to make the Gospel visual.
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, and a retired LCMS pastor, and the author of two books, Open Prairies and It Must Be the Noodles.