We can be honest with ourselves: our Lutheran Church does not have the most storied history, nor do we possess a very impressive body of work, in regard to the visual arts. We might consider the works of Cranach or late Dürer, as the high points of Lutheran art. But how do these compare to the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Bernini, Caravaggio, and countless other masters, who have produced works for Roman Catholicism? Even since the Reformation period it seems, generally speaking, that the visual arts within the Lutheran church have been found lacking in quantity and quality. Is this because the Lutheran Church has not been supportive of the visual arts?
There are different factors that give insight to why our visual heritage is found lacking. First of all, Martin Luther himself had a greater passion and natural ability for music than for the visual arts. He and other reformers felt that God's Word could be more clearly and powerfully proclaimed through music and song than through the use of the visual arts. And so, within Lutheranism, the visual arts have been overshadowed by the musical arts. Greater value and appreciation has been assigned to the great Lutheran chorales than to the great Lutheran masterpieces. This is due in part to practicality. It took less time to write a hymn than to paint a masterpiece, and a hymn could be mass produced and widely distributed — uniting people across the land — whereas an altarpiece, no matter how beautiful or how powerful its message was, would affect only those who came to see it. Also, there is the issue of paying for the work. Roman Catholicism had sources of income that the Lutherans had rejected, such as indulgences and the sale of masses. Instead of painting the wealthy patrons into the wings, Lutheran artists painted the common people into their work. They did this for the sake of the message rather than for the sake of money.
So, has the Lutheran Church been a hostile environment to the visual arts and to Lutherans who desire to produce visual art? One might argue that it is not a helpful environment. On the other hand, one might also argue that because of Luther, and especially his emphasis on the doctrine of vocation, Lutheran artists have been freed to produce more and varied work, as demonstrated by the wide variety that is found within this show.
A "Lutheran Art Show" does not need to include only liturgical art (for the specific purpose of promoting and sharing the Word of God) though such work will be found here. But an artist who is Lutheran is free to paint images that are also secular in nature. Certainly, any Christian would want to avoid images that are disrespectful, crude, or sinful; but by producing such work as landscapes, portraits, or even abstract works, the artist is producing art that serves their neighbor. By serving their neighbor in this way, they fulfill their God-given vocation as an artist, regardless of whether the work is religious in nature or not.
The artists participating in this show were invited under this premise. As Lutherans, we understand that even if their work is not explicitly religious in nature, the fact that they are producing their work to the best of their abilities, and to the service of their neighbors, they are thus serving God in their vocation. Can a Lutheran serve in the vocation of "liturgical artist," while another Lutheran serves in the vocation of "landscape artist" or "portraitist"? We must answer: "YES!" Both are good and pleasing to God!
As you look at the wide variety of work within this show, realize that all those participating are of the same fellowship, members of the ELS and WELS. We confess the same teachings and beliefs that are drawn from Scripture and confessed in our Lutheran Confessions. We come to the table with similar worldviews and yet, the work that you see varies greatly! This is designed to force the viewer to be challenged and will lead you to ask questions — important questions that are worth discussing: "What is a 'Lutheran Artist'?" "What makes this art 'Christian' in nature?" "How can we as Lutherans support those among us who are artists, who by their work and influence are helping to 'sanctify the arts and culture'?" "How might we, as Lutherans, moving forward into the next 500 years, better support the visual arts in our midst?"
It is our hope and prayer that this unique show, at the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, might inspire us to appreciate — and encourage us to better support — the visual arts within Lutheranism.
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