John Skillen: The Works of Art in the Work of the Church
In recent decades, a growing number of Christians—even those from church traditions formerly suspicious of the arts—are warming up to the idea that artworks can serve in the various practices of the life of faith, and not only in iconographic form as images of Jesus in worship. Scripturally sound and aesthetically sophisticated works of art can guide our prayer, help catechize our children, and shape the environments of our missional work. Many of us will welcome some pointers for putting art back in its place in the settings where we live and work.
To help us imagine possibilities, John Skillen will offer examples from a long period of Christian history when the arts were put to work in the collective life of the church in more places and in more ways than most of us nowadays can imagine. Not only churches but also hospitals, orphanages, the meeting rooms of parachurch organizations, baptisteries and bell towers, dining halls and cloisters in monasteries, town halls and civic fountains and public squares—all were places of serious decoration and design expected to be compatible with Christian faith.
No sphere of religious and civic life was off-limits for imagery able to instruct, to prompt memory, and to inspire emotion and action—the three functions of art most commonly cited during the Middle Ages to defend its value.
Dr. John Skillen (PhD English, Duke University) taught medieval and Renaissance literature at Gordon College before serving as the founding director of the college’s arts-oriented semester program in Orvieto, Italy. Dr. Skillen directs the Orvieto-based Studio for Art, Faith & History and its program of seminars, retreats, conferences, and projects in theater and music. In every case, the studio models how the work of art can be put more widely to work in the life of the church and its surrounding community, a theme explored in his book Putting Art (Back) in Its Place (Hendrickson, 2016). Architectural and interior design that is in harmony with the missional purpose of a building is the theme of Skillen’s latest book, Making School Beautiful: Restoring the Harmony of Place (Classical Academic Press, 2020).
Image credit: Sodoma, Benedict Instructs the Peasants, ca. 1500. Fresco at the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, Tuscany.