Visual art, the artist and worship in the reformed tradition: A theological study

PhD Thesis

Wheeler, Geraldine Jean. (2003). Visual art, the artist and worship in the reformed tradition: A theological study [PhD Thesis].
AuthorsWheeler, Geraldine Jean
TypePhD Thesis
Qualification nameDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)

The Reformed tradition, following Zwingli and especially Calvin, excluded images from the churches. Calvin rejected the sacred images of his day as idolatrous on the grounds that they were treated as making God present, that the necessary distinction between God and God’s material creation was not maintained, and because an image, which rightly was to be mimetic of visible reality, could not truthfully depict God. Calvin approved the Renaissance notion of visual art as mimetic and he understood that artists’ abilities were gifts of God and were to be used rightly. He also had a very keenly developed visual aesthetic sense in relation to nature as the “mirror” of God’s glory. However, the strong human tendency towards idolatry before images, he believed, meant that it was not expedient to place any pictures in the churches. Reinterpretation of key biblical passages, particularly the first and second commandments (Calvin’s numbering), together with changes in the understanding of what constitutes visual art, of the relationships between words and visual images, and of the processes of interpretation and reception not only of texts but of all perceived reality, lead to a re-thinking of the issues. The biblical narrative with its theological insights can be interpreted into a visual language and used by the church as complementary to, but never replacing, biblical preaching and teaching in words. Attention to the visual aesthetic dimensions of the worship space is important to allow for this space to function as an invitation and call to worship. Its form, colour, light and adorning may give aesthetic delight, which leads to praise and thanksgiving, or it may provoke other response which helps people prepare to offer worship to God. The world and its people depicted in visual art/image may inform the praying of the church and the visual representation of the church (the saints) may provide congregations with an awareness of the breadth of the church at worship in heaven and on earth. In the present diversity of views about visual art and the work of the artist there is freedom for the artist to re-think the question of vocation and artists may find new opportunities for understanding and exercising their vocation not only in secular art establishments and the community but also in relation to the worship of the church.

PublisherAustralian Catholic University
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Research GroupSchool of Arts
Final version
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Publication dates
Online30 May 2003
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