Art Church / Church Art

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is the phenomenon of art galleries popping up in churches. I don’t mean churches being converted into galleries, which is happening in some places (lots of churches are also being turned into lofts, mosques, shopping malls and karate dojos) but active congregations literally “making a space” for the arts in their building. It’s interesting to consider how an art gallery in a church might be different than a plain old art gallery. Churches are traditionally “sacred space,” set apart for holy use, and the ‘art’ in them is not so much to be appreciated for its own sake as to draw us to God. Think of the ornately painted ceilings of a Greek Orthodox church or the interplay of stone and glass in a cathedral. Of course, many modern Protestant churches are purely functional, sometimes nothing more than a gymnasium with some folding chairs, so the difference between “sacred” and “secular” space is minimal. But regardless of what church you’re talking about, introducing a gallery space raises an interesting question: is the art to be appreciated apart from the religious/spiritual context, or is it being offered as a pathway to the transcendent?

I suppose a gallery in a church might have certain limits on content – you’re probably not going to have a Paul McCarthy performance piece that pushes the limits of abjection and disgust down the hall from the Sunday School classroom. And as for religious imagery, I would probably expect to see something along the lines of Georges Rouault or Marc Chagall but probably not a future Andres Serrano (even though his Piss Christ makes a profound religious statement). But that certainly doesn’t mean that art in churches has to be all about sweetness and light. The exhibition that just opened by Margaret Glew at the gallery in Yorkminster Park Baptist Church at Yonge and St. Clair (the church my grandparents went to, actually) sounds like it’s anything but innocuous: “You come to me in words. I am stripped, flayed, gutted. I have no skin and the world rushes into me” (from the gallery website). I’ll have to check that out.

One might also wonder if the art in a church gallery should come from people within the community, professional artists or some combination thereof. Plus there are questions about how religious, if at all, the art and/or the artist should be. Does there have to be a “spiritual” element to the work? For that matter, does the art have to be “beautiful” in some sense of the word? What uses of a gallery space fit or don’t fit with the customary uses of a church building? And are “galleries” too bound up with the “institutional” definition of art, which has come under fire from people like Nicholas Wolterstorff for being too narrow a concept of creativity?

My main condition is that the art is good… and if it’s going to treat religious themes, then needs to do so in an expressive, evocative manner. (No kitsch.)

Chagall’s “Exodus”:



Barnett Newman’s twelfth “Station of the Cross” (Christ’s death):



3 thoughts on “Art Church / Church Art

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