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The Whole Story

Giovanni di Paolo's "The Beheading of John the Baptist."

Happy Canada Day! Today’s the day that so many of us are seeing the maple leaf all around us (et au Québec la semaine passé, la fleur de lys pour la Fête Nationale) – flags and banners, window decorations and fingernail art, stickers and face painting. Some of us carry these patriotic symbols with us year round (tattoos, flags on backpacks, car stickers), because they represent for us a complete story – this is the symbol of our home land, the country we celebrate being a part of. For good or for ill, this is home.

So what happens when we don’t have the whole story ? Imagine if a stranger were to see within our art something unintended, confusing, or offensive? I wonder how often we present an incomplete picture of the Christian church/faith/tradition? Does what we present through art and symbol tell enough of our whole story to convey the truth?

A case in point: a (non-religious) friend is presently traveling in Europe, and posted the following as her Facebook status: “The last two days I’ve been inside two churches. The religulous folks I know always talk about how god loves them … Well if so – then why did I see a house on fire with god or a saint or an angel next to it looking away and pouring out water away from it? Also what about the angel that was carrying a book with a skull resting on top of it, looking as pleased as punch?
Needless to say, it makes for some interesting speculation.”

Interesting speculation indeed. There were many comments on the post identifying scriptural references and theologising on the continued meaning of the whole story, and how modern interpretation veers from old world fear, etc. My thought was that this highlights a stark reality: how Christians present themselves is not always consistent with our message. I find that often our artwork – icons, paintings, stained glass – present just a glimpse of a story while presuming that it will be understood in its entirety.

We have gorgeous artistic representations that assist the faithful in visualising and appreciating the scriptures, but they are limited in what they can express, and one needs to know whole story to under stand them. There are also many pieces which display a large amount of artist interpretation that may be more cultural than scriptural. There are items of religious significance that are displayed almost as art which may seem odd and repugnant (I’m thinking of some of the bone relics in some old European churches).  I think that this may be confusing to the seeking and even repulsive to the stranger.

I am not by any means suggesting that we rid ourselves of this artwork – as someone who knows the stories, I appreciate the artwork. I enjoy seeing how different artists over different centuries have both understood and presented favourite aspects of the Christian message. But I hope that we might find a way to fill in the details of what this art depicts and represents – not just for visitors to the churches, but for all of us – whether it’s our first time seeing something or our 50th year sitting in the pew beside the art. Maybe little plaques (how very Anglican!) with a brief description like they have in art galleries. Maybe on leaflets at the entranceway to our buildings. I don’t know what the answer is, but it has raised a question for me. Hopefully some more artistic folks will comment here with some insight!

Does the religious artwork in your home and worship space tell a complete story? Have you ever considered what message it might give to an outsider?

About Laura Marie Piotrowicz

I'm a high-energy priest, now serving in the Diocese of Niagara, catching glimpses of the kingdom in daily life. I consider church to be a verb, and I'm passionate about prayer, eco-theology, and social justice. I love travel, reading, canoeing, camping, gardening and cooking, playing with my dogs, and drinking good coffee.
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