Hanging high above the heads of worshippers at St. James’s Church on Piccadilly in the center of London are several life vests and a half-inflated raft. There is the faint sound of the ocean. The lighting periodically sweeps across the raft as though emanating from a searchlight. The raft was recovered just off the Greek coastline. A dozen or more Syrians, including several children, were lost at sea. St. James installed this poignant artwork during Advent as a reminder that the members of the Holy Family were once refugees without a home.
The arts have always played an important role in the life of the Church. From the earliest days, artists have sought to inspire people in their faith and devotion. It was almost exclusively the Church who gave patronage to artists and commissioned pieces of art designed to teach through images of biblical stories. Today when we think of iconography or the beauty of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it’s hard to imagine just how beloved masterpieces were seen in their own day—among them the Renaissance Italian painters Caravaggio’s uncomfortable realism and Botticelli’s “modernism.” Debates raged among scholars and church leaders as to the “appropriate” role of the arts in churches. Their patrons sometimes shunned recalcitrant artists who seemed to criticize church or societal politics because they refused to bend to the will of what was considered beauty in their own day. I think of the Rembrandt etching of Jesus driving the moneychangers from the Temple. In it, the artist depicts a seventeenth century bishop and his wealthy patrons looking on in disgust and dismay as Jesus flogs away at corruption. Imagine how that piece of art was received in its own day!
In our society, when art is so often harnessed to push products through branding and logos and the arts become a commodity that must prove their worth, I believe it is a good time to ask, “What role should the Church have in sponsoring the arts?” And more specifically, I ask “What role can we at Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati play not only in nurturing the arts and local artists, but also in how we might allow the arts to provide a prophetic voice for those who are without a voice in our city?” Creativity is both a fully human and fully divine experience, and we honor the belief that we are created in God’s image when we bless and support creativity. When I saw the refugee raft exhibit at St. James last January, I was inspired to renew our commitment to the arts at the cathedral as an expression of God’s own creative expression in our world.
Christ Church Cathedral does not begin from nothing. Already it is known throughout the city for outstanding music offerings, for art exhibits, and for collaboration with the opera, symphony, and local ensembles such as Collegium Cincinnati and Cincinnati Men’s Chorus. Within this fertile soil, we continue to explore partnerships that enhance the presence of the arts in civic dialogue and expression, such as two upcoming exhibits.
The first exhibit is in support of the 2016 cathedral goal to bring awareness to the epidemic of gun violence in our nation and in our city. In collaboration with Artworks, an award-winning non-profit organization that employs and trains local youth and talent to create art and community impact, the cathedral’s Coombe Fund has commissioned Brooklyn artists, Iranian brothers Icy and Sot, to create a piece that will adorn the Fourth and Sycamore corner of the church building. Three different artists submitted proposals to our selection team, but what took our breath away in Icy and Sot’s concept was their understanding of the connection between gun violence and economic and educational inequalities. I will be interested to hear the response to this provocative piece in the coming months.
Likewise, as a gift to the cathedral’s bicentennial celebration that begins next year, the Coombe Fund will gift an installation from Anne Patterson, the amazing artist who created the “Graced with Light” at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. (See interview with Anne Patterson.) The dean of Grace Cathedral, Jane Shaw, commented that the piece “just lifts people’s spirits.” Our cathedral team in Cincinnati was attracted to Anne’s work because she included the whole city of San Francisco in the creative process. There will be an analogous element of community involvement in our installation. Anne has also been working closely with Stephan Casurella, the cathedral canon precentor and director of music, to develop musical offerings to complement the visual piece. The installation will begin just after Easter of 2017.
On a personal note, I want to mention how art has come to play an important role in my own ministry. Though I worked for more than 17 years as an interior designer in my former life, I actually have no formal training in fine arts. Four years ago, I decided to begin working with a teacher who held open studio time for local Kansas City artists. He was most gracious, kind, and encouraging to me, and under his tutelage I began to flourish in painting. When I say, “flourish,” I am not referring to excellence of my expression as a painter. I am very much an amateur with much still to learn. What I mean by flourish is that painting has become a time of spiritual healing and renewal for me. I feel as if I am in prayer while I paint with all the struggle, joy, and repair that prayer can bring. I believe painting has changed my preaching and my ability to imagine new possibilities—and I feel incredibly blessed to have found this new creative expression in my life. I believe that the Church, through its support of the arts, opens us up as a people to the same possibilities of healing and renewal.
for Gail Greenwell
Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple by Rembrandt
Photographs of Half Dome (Yosemite National Park) by Ansel Adams
White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall