London: British Museum, 2007, £20.00, Hardback, 248p., colour illustrations, ISBN 9780714150536.
This book is much more than a conversation piece on a coffee table. Its first sentence is: “The purpose of Christian art is to deepen our encounter with God”. The author then draws a similarity between art and faith: both are handed down through history but both have to re-work their power on every individual through history. Christian art has flourished for two millennia, but the book’s aim is to assess Christian art’s effect on a post-Christian audience.
The reader is therefore treated to both a candid interpretation of a wide range of art, and also a lavish collection of examples to ponder on and to appreciate simply for their innate beauty. Mosaics, artifacts, papier mache, clothing, lithograph, sculpture, painting – the full range of expression is illustrated to a high standard, though the author emphasises that they constitute a minute proportion of the British Museum’s collection of works with Christian significance.
After an account of the crisis brought about by the decline of popular knowledge of Christianity, the author asserts that “There has never been a better time to use art as a medium for evangelism” (p.14) because we live in an essentially visual and pictorial society.
This is not a history-of-Christian-art book. Indeed any historical survey (from initial attempts to express the faith visually around the time of Constantine to the present day) is confined to one chapter. Succeeding chapters deal with various themes: the pain of fallen humanity, human response to and understanding of God, the staggering meaning of the Incarnation, the status of women, human destruction of Creation, Christian service to the world, contradictions within the Church, Christian art in an international and multi-religious context, eschatology. The final chapter deals with the third millennium (seen by many as starting on 11 September 2001) and its challenging and sensational representations of Christian themes, sometimes initially shocking but on reflection shot through with theological truth.
Contributed by: Gordon A. Harris, BSocSc, MPhil, FCLIP, DipKM, a former CLIS President who has worked as Senior Corporate Information Officer for Tearfund and is now a coach.