What Are Artists Up to Now?

The National Gallery in Washington, D.C., recently put on a display of Christian art. Oh, it wasn't called Christian art, but that's what it was. The display featured paintings by the nineteenth-century artist Jasper Cropsey, who was a strong Reformed believer. The highlight was a set of two paintings that were separated in 1857 and brought together in this exhibit for the first time in nearly a century and a half. The two paintings are titled The Spirit of War and The Spirit of Peace. In the first painting, war is symbolized by a fortress jutting up against a stormy sky. An eerie red light falls on a group of knights riding off to battle, while frightened shepherds and a mother and child flee from an unseen enemy. In the second painting, peace is symbolized by a temple under a calm, luminous sky. The shepherds are serenely leading their flock; the mother plays with her child. Isaiah 11:6 is illustrated by a statue of a lion lying down with a lamb. Together the two paintings constitute a profound statement of Cropsey's Christian faith. The Spirit of War portrays the violence and conflict caused by human sin. The Spirit of Peace pictures the solution to that conflict: the peace that comes from Jesus Christ. Jasper Cropsey belonged to a school of American art known as the Hudson River school. Most of its members were Christians, and their paintings were either landscapes or spiritual allegories. For example, Albert Bierstadt was a master of panoramic landscape painting-with range upon range of mountains creating a sense of grandeur. "There is something of the Gothic cathedral in Bierstadt's nature paintings," writes art professor Gene Edward Veith, "a use of light and infinite space to induce reverence and awe." Another member of the Hudson River school was Frederic Church, a Christian who combined art with scientific knowledge. His breathtaking paintings of sunsets, volcanoes, and icebergs were tributes to the glories of God's creation. The best known of the Hudson River school was Thomas Cole, who captured the American wilderness with majestic paintings of mountains bathed in golden sunlight and forests wrapped in silvery mists. But Cole is also renowned for his paintings of Bible scenes and spiritual allegories. Cole's series The Voyage of Life allegorizes the four stages of life as a man traveling down a river: from a baby in a golden boat guarded by an angel; to an overconfident youth who leaves the angel behind; through the dark and deadly rapids of middle age-which drive the hero to his knees in prayer; to the peaceful harbor of old age, with the doors of heaven opening above. These great artists are part of our own spiritual heritage as Christians. Why don't you pick up a good book on American art history and get to know them better? As Christians we need to be discerning to stand against bad art by standing for good art. The negative spirit of today's culture desperately needs the healing balm of the spirit of peace.


Chuck Colson


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