In the Beauty of Holiness

Art and the Bible in Western Culture

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David L. Jeffrey
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , July
     2017.
     320 pages.
     $49.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780802874702.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this beautifully and prodigiously illustrated tome, David L. Jeffrey sets before himself an ambitious task: fashioning a Christian visual theology unifying beauty and holiness via a wide-ranging romp through the history of Western Christian art. Jeffrey’s core theological argument is that Christian art, when done correctly, unifies beauty and holiness to “ineluctably evoke a desire to reenter the presence” (359) of God. His historical argument is a story of loss and longed-for return: the Platonic synthesis of beauty, truth, and goodness, so skillfully expressed in ancient and medieval Christian art, has been severed since the Renaissance and Reformation. Yet a glimmer of hope remains, as Jeffrey concludes his book with a look at three twentieth-century artists who successfully invite viewers into the presence of God: Marc Chagall, Georges Rouault, and Arcabas. Though the chapters are chronological, Jeffrey does not pretend to attempt a comprehensive history of Christian art, only an impressionistic glance at different styles and movements as they “help to illuminate a fundamental cultural, theological, and spiritual trajectory for Christian art in the West” (7). His success lies in his ability to synthesize and provoke large questions.

In the first half of his book, Jeffrey builds the ancient synthesis. He starts with a look at the Bible, in which beauty is already comingled with holiness and a search for order. Succeeding chapters examine the cross as an emerging symbol that is paradoxically beautiful despite its prima macie ugliness; the structure and architecture of churches as unifying beauty and worship; the use of light in cathedrals to show how human art reflects the divine Light; thirteenth-century frescoes of gospel stories reflecting a Franciscan emphasis on the beauty and piety of everyday people; and late medieval altarpieces setting the tone for worship.

The second half of the book dismantles the synthesis built in the first. Jeffrey begins his story in the sixteenth century, when an expanding diversity of patrons made for Christian art that pursued beauty for its own sake, even lapsing into gratuitous eroticism in paintings of Bathsheba and Mary Magdalene. Sectarian debates made for art that reflect not the beauty of God, but the truth of Luther or the power of the pope. In three succeeding chapters, two of which are ominously titled “Art after Belief” and “Art against Belief,” Jeffrey charts how first nature replaced religion (Romanticism); then art replaced religion (Gauguin, Van Gogh, Pre-Raphaelites); and finally, art attacked religion (Munch, Picasso, Ernst, Dali). Though Jeffrey deems many of the artists covered in these chapters inappropriate for worshipful consumption, he does find some glimmers of hope (in Rembrandt and Hunt, for example). In his final chapter, he turns to Chagall, Rouault, and Arcabas as reclaimers of (respectively) the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. With Arcabas, who is still living, Jeffrey brings us to our own time, to ponder what other artists today unify beauty and holiness.

Given its scope, specialists will likely find details and omissions to quibble over. For example, Jeffrey does not discuss Blake at all, and one wonders why he did not include gilded manuscripts in his discussion of light in medieval Christian art. One might argue with his conception of the Nabis and the Pre-Raphaelites as unsuccessful in their efforts to reclaim the vision of medieval Christian art Jeffrey himself endorses. Personally, I would have liked some elaboration on the significance of Marc Chagall to Jeffrey’s argument, since it seems ironic that one of the three artists he deems to recapture his ideal of Christian art was actually Jewish! In short, by synthesizing primary sources from and secondary scholarship about Christian art over two thousand years in 382 pages, Jeffrey opens himself up to scrutiny.

Yet there is power and bravery in providing a master narrative. For some decades Jeffrey has been seeking to revive a traditional conception of the humanities as a unified course of study, with several works on the Bible in Western literature. Though this book covers art and architecture, Jeffrey marshals poetry and theology to support his argument as well. Personally, I found this book a joy to read and view, and appreciated its courage in asking some wide-angle questions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Homrighausen is a graduate student in Biblical Studies at the Graduate Theological Union.

Date of Review: 
March 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Lyle Jeffrey is distinguished professor of literature and the humanities at Baylor University, Waco, Texas, and an eminent authority on the Bible, art, and culture. His previous books include People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture.

Comments

David Jeffrey

I am very happy with this review, especially in that Jonathan Homrighausen responds to the core content and explicit intent of the book, and moreover, places it accurately in the context of my overall career project.

I am, moreover, sympathetic with his reservation about my leaving out Blake. I wrestled with this for some time. Blake’s use of the Bible is highly idiosyncratic, and pretty much sifted through the grid of his own personal myth; accordingly, the temptation to include him carried the price of another chapter of some length, and in the end I gave up on the idea in order to follow the general trajectory I was trying to demonstrate.

I regret still more not having a chapter dedicated to medieval ms illustration, including more medieval Jewish examples. I have written on these matters enough elsewhere to realize with regret that this rich treasury too would demand of me a long (and perhaps for my readers) too specialized a chapter.

As for Chagall, my favorite modern painter, his Jewishness has enabled him to be the most accomplished of modern visual artists making central use of the biblical tradition, my subject in this volume. I have suggested, with reasonable warrant I hope, that more than any of his contemporaries he has realized the power of biblical stories for modern art.

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