Some thoughts about the question ‘What is Christian Art?’
Some argue that art referring to the Bible or the Christian tradition is Christian art. Some say that art made by Christians is Christian art. Some question if Christian art as a differentiation within art is possible at all. Let me tell you a story as a way of conveying some thoughts on this matter.
While I was in Finland at the end of 2015, I had the opportunity to visit Pekka Hannula, a well-known Finnish etcher and visual artist. Some of the images on his website communicated to me an outstanding ability to create harmony. That was also my impression of Pekka himself when we talked on a peaceful winter morning.
As his story unfolded I learned about the extreme challenges he faced in his childhood. His mother was psychotic and had an excruciating relationship with the two children. The police regularly removed her from home for the safety of the family, who suffered greatly. There was no possibility to talk about the damaging events the children went through.
When he was around ten years old, Pekka experienced something unexplainable: he heard something very solemn uttered in his heart. He was not accustomed to praying nor attending church services, nevertheless, these words, which he did not understand, were given to him: “Have mercy on me! Help me, God!” In Finnish: “Armahda minua, auta Jumala!” Pekka held on to these words and has been praying them in his heart ever since.
That wondrous prayer that appeared in his heart in the darkest hour of his childhood changed his life. “My whole life has been an answer to that prayer. God showed his mercy to me and allowed me to do art. He gave me the ability to concentrate and the possibility to do what I am most interested in. Art making is an expression of God’s mercy on me, it is not self-evident in this world, in my situation.” This power underlies his life; it is the lifelong answer of a loving Father to the desperate cry of a child.
He told me this story of his own Deus ex machina, how God intervened in his life and changed it for good. How his father gave him the tools he needed to be able to work with his hands when he left school as a rebellious teenager. How he was able to find his talent and develop it and become successful. How this one sentence sent him on a journey towards building a relationship with the Creator. How he and his wife were able to create a harmonious family. And now, at the age of 53, he is attending university classes and enjoys exploring the arts further and further. As he states, “Everything I do, I do it for the Lord. I am fully focused.”
As Pekka showed me around his studio, I saw again what had touched me about the images on his website: that he is able to turn pain, anguish and anger around and create hopeful harmony from scratch – a harmony that is never shallow. He admits that his way of working is almost ‘obsessive’ and that he is crazy about the curative qualities of creating. “Art drives me, compels me. I have to keep on doing it. It is my tool for coping with this world, understanding it. God has allowed me to heal through art. This is how I came to be me!”
His art is art for God’s sake, born from a personal relationship with his Creator. His hopes have aligned with God’s desire for all people. Experiencing brokenness and beauty in people and things ignites an enormous drive for wholeness in Pekka. While he keeps the ‘broken’ parts broken in his collages, he works with them and creates harmony out of them. His works communicate to me an active yearning for the ultimate restoration.
Pekka Hannula: Henkäys – The Breath, collage, 65 x 295 cm, 2005, shown in an exhibition in Spektri Business Park Finland in 2011
Human life is pictured in his collage The Breath as one respiration. It is a spiritual work of art. The actual word ‘spiritual’ is derived from the Latin word spiritus, meaning soul, courage, vigor, breath, related to spirare, to breathe. The Breath literally concerns matters of the spirit. It pictures a human lifeline as a collection of detailed, layered, associative short stories of the soul, visualized as a light breath of God amidst a messy darkness. This life is not easy, it is not perfect, does not have much color, it is full of struggle.
Detail of the far left of the painting
Still it begins and ends in a mysterious mist of light flowing in and, at the end of the story, flowing out of the canvas. Life comes from God, takes a material shape, goes through many different phases and situations and before the material falls apart and turns back to dust, the immaterial breath of life returns to where it came from. At that moment the canvas is enriched with a piece of text as if it was the motto, the point of the story, Psalm 23:
The far right of the painting
A Psalm of David
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Let us briefly compare Hannula’s The Breath with the The Walthamstow Tapestry, created by contemporary conceptual artist Grayson Perry. It is inspired by Giotto’s chapel in Padua and by the 11th-century Bayeux tapestry. It can be seen in the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht, the Netherlands.
Grayson Perry: The Walthamstow Tapestry, 15 x 3 m, 2009
This impressive tapestry is a celebrated work of art that mirrors society and includes references to Christianity. Just like The Breath it pictures a human life from birth to death in a collection of visual stories. It shows how consumption has become the religion of our society. A Madonna-like figure is holding a Gucci bag at the center of the tapestry, as some sort of cherished life achievement. Truth comes from the newspaper (The Guardian is the shining star, see detail) and the blind museum is led by the auction house (Sotheby’s leads Guggenheim, see detail). There is not much space for matters of the spirit or transforming experiences of personal growth, not much hope for a meaningful spiritual life on earth, as finances and trademarks invade and rule human life. Here, the lifeline is pictured as a river of blood beginning and ending in a material way. No spiritual breath of God nor higher inspiration.
The tapestry is a critical, and sometimes funny, narrative document of an average contemporary life, a mirror of society, a story of consumerism.
Both Pekka Hannula and Grayson Perry address reality in all its rawness. Both lean on images that are rooted in the Christian tradition. Neither of them makes it look easy to live a meaningful life. But while the one settles for ‘life at first sight’ (though criticizing the banality of it all), the other keeps referring to something vitally important beyond. Only one of the two rises above the forlorn human state and communicates a hope for more in life than birth, consumption, and death. Only one of them challenges and encourages the spectator to search for the source of the breath we breathe, the source of what makes life worth living, the source of our longing for the victory of redemptive harmony.
Isn’t that what Christian spirituality is all about: searching, sensing, and celebrating the breath of God, an ongoing reference to the unshakable goodness behind all things and the hope for restoration? Isn’t that what ‘Christian art’ is all about?
This blog was published on ArtWay in 2016.