The History of Art and the Church

As believers, we know that the church was established when Christ gave His great commission to the church. The church did prosper for some time and then Saul began persecuting the believers. In around 312 AD, the Roman emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity, and declared the tolerance of Christians. Eighty years later, under Theodosius I, Christianity was proclaimed to be the official religion of the Roman Empire. This produced what we know today as the Roman Catholic church. Although most Protestant Christians will say the Roman Church is corrupt today, it did not start out so. These men were indeed believers who taught the doctrines that were handed down. The Roman Catholic Church has been ruled by succession of popes since the middle of the 5th century. These men, though they were flawed (as are all humans), saw that music and art  were preserved and regulated.

At the beginning of the church (the true beginning) we know that believers often met in each other’s homes and sometimes on Solomon’s porch at the Temple. The houses were probably simple without a lot of elaborate art, perhaps some pottery and tapestries. However, to make up for how little weknow about the people’s houses, we know a great deal about the detailed artistry that went into the making of Solomon’s temple (see 1 Kings 6). Of course, the temple that Solomon built originally was destroyed, but it was rebuilt and dedicated to the Lord (Ezra 6: 15-16). We also know that they spoke to each other “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody from the heart to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:19).

If we fast-forward a few hundred years, we enter into the Liturgy of the Catholic Church. Specifically what we know existed musically in the church was chant. There were different types of chant: Gallican (France), Old Roman (Rome), Mozarabic (Spain), and Ambrosian (Milan). It should be observed here that the different types of chants served the different languages or dialects of the countries in which they were practiced. When Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 AD, he sought to impose Roman chant (and one language) on the entire empire. This led to a body of chant being compiled, known collectively as “Gregorian chant.” This name originated supposedly because Pope Gregory I authorized the reorganization and standardization of the chant liturgy, established the “schola cantorum” (school of singing), and,  allegedly under divine inspiration, composed all of the melodies for the chants.Gregorian chant became the standard  repertoire of music in the western church from the 9th-16th centuries.

Music was simple: the was one single-line melody- known as monophony. In the 11th century, however, people started getting bored with that. Composers started composing with multiple voices moving around each other- known as polyphony. At its origin, polyphonic music may have only had two or three voices, but by the height of its glory day there could be as many as five or six. Polyphony saw its greatest development at the Notre Dame Cathedral in France. The two well-known composers of this style are Leonin and Perotin. Their music imitated the style of grandeur in the construction of the massive cathedral (which took almost 200 years to complete).

The main visual art of the church was the architecture. These structures required a lot of science and planning, but they are also works of art. Think of the Notre Dame Cathedral (pictured above)- this took two hundred years to complete. The people who started it never saw it completed. But it was their life- what they did… who they were. Perhaps the most famous church artist was in the Renaissance period- Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarotti Simoni. He is known for his famous David sculpture as well as for his painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (pictured below).

Among his late works is the fresco on the Sistine Chapel altar wall- The Last Judgement (pictured below).

His final project was to design St. Peters Basilica in Vatican, Rome (pictured below). He died while the dome was under construction.

This is just a sampling of his works. He did many paintings and sculptures of religious subject matter. Most of his work was commissioned by the Roman Church.

Music in the renaissance became more humanist. Composers tried to find sounds that expressed the emotion of the text. Polyphony became more and more complex; so much so that it became an art of its own- one was not considered a great composer unless he could write polyphony. This increasing complexity of several voices each being of equal importance with no discernible melody made it almost impossible to hear the text. In fact, at the dawn of the Reformation, this is one of the complaints that Luther brings to the church- the lay people had no understanding of what was going on in the Mass.

We should take into consideration that Luther originally had no intention of leaving the Roman Church; he merely wished to “reform” it. He was excommunicated after he would not give up. Music was very important to Luther as he was himself an amateur composer. He respected and appreciated the Catholic composer Josquin. Luther kept much of the Catholic traditional music.  Some was kept in the original Latin and some was translated into German. In addition, new German texts were written and set to old melodies. Luther believed in keeping some Latin in the church service as he believed it to be educational. Somewhere in the mix of things singing had become a part of the service only for people who were in the choir. Luther believed in and encouraged the congregation to participate in singing. The chorale was developed as a standard of congregational singing: 4-voices (not polyphony) with a prominent melody composed so that the music repeats with each verse. This is the origin of today’s hymn. Luther composed around 12 of these, including Ein Feste Burg- which is translated and sung in many protestant churches today as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

Outside of Germany, John Calvin led the greatest Protestant reformation. Unlike Luther, Calvin sought to separate completely from the Roman Church. He stripped churches of all possible distractions, including decorations, elaborate church buildings, ceremonial procedures, and polyphony. He believed that congregational singing united worshipers in faith and praise. For the songs, he only permitted use of biblical texts, and especially encouraged using the book of Psalms as a source. The Psalter came into being for this purpose. In England, there was a split, but this was because Henry VIII was refused an annulment of his marriage by the pope. The Anglican Church remained essentially Catholic, except for the liturgy which changed from Latin to English.

I leave us hanging in the late sixteenth century. That is because in the Protestant church, so little has changed. Whether they know it or not, many modern day churches have in one way or another been influenced by Calvin’s view of the arts. In some ways this is a good thing… anything that distracts from worship is not something that belongs in the church.  There is a counter-tendency in some local churches to give arts the pre-eminence during worship. Do we need the elegance of St. Peter’s Basilica? Or the ornate ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?  Or do we need music that is so distracting that we cannot focus on worship? Or music so complex that we cannot understand the words? No. Paul tells us that everything we do should be for the edification of the body (1 Cor. 14:26).  We as artists need to know our gifts and learn how to use them for the edification (building up) of the body of Christ. As artists we need to know that as long as our ultimate goal is to glorify God, what we do in the church is important and good.

Know what you can do. Ask yourself if you are doing it. If you are, ask yourself if it is edifying the body. If it is not, ask yourself why not. If you are not doing what you can do, ask yourself why not. If it is a personal choice, pray that God will help to use you and your art. If it is a matter of oversight (pastors and elders), talk to them with respect for the authority that God has given them. If it is truly something that God wants you to do, he will work in their hearts to give you that ministry. Don’t be discouraged when things don’t go your way. Know that God is molding and making his church into the perfect bride, and he does have a place for you and your art.

“How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said—
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

“Fear not, I am with thee, oh, be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My gracious, omnipotent hand.

“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee thy trouble to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not harm thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

“The soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose,
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”


Seth is a pianist, piano instructor, piano performance major, but a believer in Jesus Christ first of all. Seth was raised in a family of eight children and was homeschooled from Kindergarten through twelfth grade. From the beginning, he had a love for music and specifically for the piano and organ. At the age of seven, hebegan playing piano and taught himself for four years. When he was eleven, Seth began piano lessons with Thea Hoekman in Fremont, Michigan and started playing the organ at his church in Newaygo, Michigan. When he was thirteen, Seth’s family moved to Texas and he began his studies with Carolyn Steinberg in Celina, Texas and continued studying with her throughout high school. These formative years were essential to his growth not only as a pianist but also as a believer. When he was 16, Seth began his private piano studio under Mrs. Steinberg’s helpful guidance. Seth has developed many ideas about teaching that are his own and has grown as a teacher for the past several years.


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