A good way to begin any new year is by looking back. In this case, I mean way back — at 2,000 years of Christian art.Fortress Press has done the American religious community a great favor by co-publishing A Journey Into Christian Art (2000; cloth, $35) with Lion Publishing, Oxford, England (order from Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 800-328-4648; www.augsburgfortress.org).
The author is British art conservator Helen de Borchgrave. In delineating two millennia of Christian images and themes, she starts with simple paintings on the walls of Rome's catacombs. Here the creators were not trained artists but early Christians finding a relatively safe place to fervently express their faith. She then proceeds chronologically to identify movements, places, settings and individual figures all the way up through the 20th century. The book is lavishly illustrated, and the color plates are of high quality.
In lively prose that is easy to read, she discusses the social context in which these artists worked.
The book isn't meant to be exhaustive, and people will find some of their favorites missing, especially in the 20th century section. On the other hand, de Borchgrave introduces some lesser-known artists to convey the breadth and richness of Christian art. For example, she focuses on 20th century Polish artists whose works illustrate their country's lack of freedoms under the Soviet regime.
The book shows the myriad ways in which art has conveyed both religious truths and the everyday realities of the artist's society — whether in war or peace, in a time of religious toleration or persecution — and so reveals attitudes and mores of a particular culture at a particular time.
If you haven't previously thought much about the relationship between religion and the arts or you want to introduce others to the concept, this book offers an excellent place to start.
© 2013 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers