December 29, 2015

A Lesson in Point-of-View

Once in a while, I'll try to take on some art topics that are more related to the mechanics and principles of design than the theology of art. (Although today, I'll get a wee bit of both in.) Today's topic is point-of-view: where is the viewer in relation to the subject? Why is it even important?

Detail from The Maestà, Duccio, 1311
We don't often think about point-of-view, unless the artist forces us to. We must first realize that point-of-view is something that has changed over the history of art. It didn't even become a topic that could be discussed concretely until the Renaissance, when perspective was formulated (or reformulated if you prefer, since the Greeks discovered it first, then we forgot about it). For instance, the viewpoint in Medieval art was limited to only a few options: the viewer was either watching events unfold on a flat stage, or perhaps floating above a scene as a disembodied spectator. Duccio di Buoninsegna's Entry into Jerusalem (left) from The Maestà altarpiece is a good example of the latter. Duccio was anticipating the advances of Italian artists who followed closely after him in that he was beginning to think of objects in three-dimensional space, instead of like stacked playing cards. But since there is no horizon line and no consistent vanishing points, it's difficult to tell exactly where the viewer would be standing in relation to the subject.

Detail from Holy Trinity, Masaccio, 1427
What Renaissance artists like Brunelleschi and Masaccio finally realized is that in real space, parallel lines appear to recede to a single point on the horizon, called a vanishing point. When the artist placed the subject in believable space, it suddenly gave the viewer a "way into" the work—he could determine his own relationship in space to the subject. For instance, in Massacio's famous Holy Trinity fresco (left), the lines of the barrel vault above the Holy Trinity recede downward to a single point near the viewer's eye level, thus creating the illusion that the viewer is looking up at the Godhead.

Why should you care? Because since the advent of perspective, point-of-view is no longer arbitrary; it can carry meaning. Does the artist make you hover above the scene as a detached observer, or does he place you into the scene? If he places you into it, does your position in relation to the subject have significance? Are you gazing up at the subject, level with it, or looking down at it? All of these questions were immediately explored to their fullest. Frescos on church domes depicted saints and angels as seen from below.  Instead of seeing holy martyrs stacked like sardines at eye-level, the viewers could crane their necks and gaze up at their blessed posteriors as they were carried to heaven by angelic children.

Scapegoat Studio, 2010
The invention of the camera forced us again to reconsider point-of-view. You can put a camera anywhere—on an airplane, on a tripod, on the ground. The placement of the camera has an impact on our interpretation of the work. Had it not been for the influence of modern cinema, I probably would have never considered putting the viewer belly-down in the dirt next to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11, right). It's unorthodox to be sure, and you probably won't find an illustration like this in any Sunday school materials. We'd much rather see Jesus' face. In fact, we'd rather be standing next to him, looking with pity down on that "sinner." Maybe we think to ourselves, I would have shown her mercy! But what does the point-of-view here say about our relationship with Jesus? Because of our sins, we belong in the dirt with the adulterous woman, clinging to the hem of Jesus' robe. We dare not even lift our eyes to his. And yet, his loving hand reaches down to touch us, to forgive our sins, and to lift us up out of the dust.

So the next time you look at a painting, a photograph, or illustration, give at least a few seconds' thought to your point-of-view. You might see something the artist is wanting you to see.

December 23, 2015

Nativity Stained Glass

This month has been far busier than usual. Of course there's the usual busyness of the season: family gatherings, travel, shopping for gifts, and still trying to earn a living.

As part of a bid for a new employment opportunity, this month I also took the time to design a stained glass window. I spent 24 hours over the course of 2 days to design it. So it's a bit of a rush job, but they were wanting to see how much could be done and in what amount of time. The nativity was the only prompt as far as subject matter, so I wanted to do something that was colorful, exemplified good design, employed a traditional treatment of figures, and yet was completely original (as opposed to lifting figures out of old masters' paintings). I also wanted to lend some meaty Christian symbolism to a scene that tends toward sentimentality and quaintness.


The Latin text of the angel's banner should be familiar to most: "Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus" translates as "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men." The peace is represented by a dove, which perches in the rafters of the stable. The dove calls to mind the cessation of God's judgment, as it did when the floodwaters receded in the time of Noah.

The cross motif is found three times in the scene: first, in the nimbus of the Christ-child, which symbolizes his divine nature (Philippians 2:5-7); second, in the lantern, which represents Christ as the light of the world (John 8:12); and third, in the rough, wooden beams of the stable, which descend directly to Jesus, foreshadowing his death.

Some have asked why a Lutheran would also place halos around Joseph and Mary's heads. Lutherans, after all, do not hold to the same view as Roman Catholics concerning sainthood. Joseph and Mary were sinful descendants of Adam and Eve, the same as you and me. Yet, Lutherans also hold to the biblical truth that all believers in Christ are simul iustus et peccator—at the same time saint and sinner. Without exception, human beings are sinful, but are made righteous through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-26). On that basis alone, I feel perfectly comfortable signifying the sainthood of any deceased believer with a halo. Add to it the fact that Joseph and Mary are described as "a just man" and "highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!" So in this design, the halos reflect not only a long Christian tradition, but also the righteousness imparted to them by faith in the Son of God.

Typically the manger scene is depicted cluttered with animals, especially in popular culture. I opted to include only a lamb. The singular lamb foreshadows Christ's role as the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

At the foot of the manger is the fruit by which the devil first tempted Adam and Eve to sin. It is the piece of the story that necessitated Christ's incarnation, his death on the cross, and his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:21-22). Immediately next to the fruit is the serpent, its head crushed by the sign of Christ's complete humility. Thus the beginning of the story of salvation is placed in context with its conclusion.

December 4, 2015

What if I'm Not Good at Art?

As an art educator, I've often heard the question asked, "Why should I take an art class if I'm not good at art?" The question is raised in at least two different contexts. The first context is when students who are being required to take a gen-ed art class make it known that they'd really rather stick a fork in their eye. The second context is from people of any age who are interested in art, but feel that a lack of talent would prohibit them from learning anything.

To answer the question with a blanket "yes" would be to oversimplify. So just to be thorough, we need to first address each context in which the question might be asked. To the reluctant students in the gen-ed art class, it needs to be made apparent that artistry is, in one respect, a life skill. Whether or not a student is good at math has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not he has to take Algebra. I realize there isn't exactly a 1:1 comparison between Algebra and Drawing, but in what other discipline is a lack of skill a legitimate excuse not to take a class? If that logic were applied to all of life consistently, we'd move through adulthood in an infantile mental state, refusing to learn anything we don't already like. (I'll refrain from commenting as to how accurately this describes the human race in general...)

To those who want to learn art, but don't feel qualified, there's no entrance exam. I've had students of all skill levels, and rest assured I'd rather have a student with little talent who wants to learn than a student with ability who refuses to learn. Students very often surprise themselves (and their instructors!). Especially in the last century, the artistic "elite" have cultivated the myth that artistic and creative skill is in-born, and that an education can do little else but squash our creativity. To put it bluntly, this is a lie. (Talent may be in-born, but skills are learned through instruction, experimentation, and repeated practice.) We all have to start somewhere, and as much as I'd like you to think that I was born with a brush in my hand, the truth is that I've come a very long way since drawing potato-head people with crayons. And most of that distance I did not cover on my own.

I'm not saying that anyone can paint like Rembrandt. But I am saying that anyone can learn, and anyone can improve as long as he is willing.

So to answer the question as honestly as possible, I would say that in most circumstances, taking an art class or two would be beneficial both to the individual and to society as a whole. For anyone who can maintain an open mind and has even the slightest interest in the arts, I believe it is prudent to invest in some basic, foundational art classes.

Now, pragmatic people in either context still want to know what utility there is in studying art. I remember those futile words escaping my lips more than once—"Why do we have to learn this, anyway? It's not like we're ever going to use Calculus." The truth is, beauty can be an end unto itself, so sometimes art defies utility (e.g., the Grand Canyon is beautiful, but it doesn't fulfill a function other than to glorify the Creator). But other kinds of art are functional. They communicate information, evoke emotions, and inspire devotion. A positive side effect of learning more about art is that you'll become more fluent in the visual language that is being employed all around us. We're visual creatures. We aren't all expected to be poets, but we're all expected to read. Communication is built into our humanity that way. I think a little artistic literacy would go a long way toward making the world a more beautiful and meaningful place to live.