Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Faith in pictures…

Written by: on November 6, 2015

David Morgan, author of The Sacred Gaze[1], explores the religious perceptions of people and cultures though various art forms.   The title of Morgan’s book captured my attention. Immediately, my thoughts went to a trip that I took a couple of years ago to Italy and the Vatican. Worship in the Italian culture is vastly different than what I experience here in the U.S. Clearly, images leave a lasting impression in our mind. My mind immediately goes back to the many beautiful basilicas and religious sites that I visited in Italy, and I think about their reflection of the Christian experience across history. From the 10th through 12th centuries there were massive efforts, in the Christian community, to build beautiful structures and to commission elaborate works of art. Walking through the Vatican, I was surprised at my own emotional response to the stories that unfolded as I studied the paintings, portraits, tapestries, and murals. “In France alone, there were 80 cathedrals, 500 large churches, and 10,000 parish churches built between 1050 and 1350.”[2] The architecture was dramatic and ornate, with bright stained glass windows.  Through history, much time, care and resources were intentionally put into the visual representation of Christianity. In Eastern tradition, icons continue to be an integral part of the worship experience. Art is embedded in church history, religious practice, and theological views. There is no dispute that art has influenced religious views, and that culture has influenced religious art. Interpretation and perception are at the heart of the visual culture. Morgan remind us that images should be a part of our scholarly observations in order to learn about people’s religious perceptions.

This year, I visited several temples and monasteries in Hong Kong. Alongside Buddhist pilgrims, I made the trek up the many steps to see the Big Buddha and toured Po Lin Monastery. Art and images are infused into the Buddhist religious experience, as well as in other religions. I learned much about the religion and cultural practice of Buddhism by observing the images, place, space, and worship of believers. This leads me to ponder why visual art isn’t more central in our American worship experiences. Most American Christians don’t think about how we came to practice religion, as we know it today. I wonder how art and faith have become so separated, when they were so integrated in history. Is it is a reflection of our separation between religious practices and the rest of ‘life’? Morgan reminds us of beliefs propagated by early church fathers. Calvin, for example, was vehemently opposed to the use of art and images, arguing that they become idols that detract our focus from God’s Word.[3] Puritan ideals of simplicity and depravity can be seen in cultural and religious practices since the founding of America.

Americans Christians seem more accepting of the idea of going into nature to meditate and worship, or to spend time in prayer. But, the idea of art in worship often raises eyebrows. Morgan offers examples of patriotic images, and their political, legal, and economic implications. He reminds us that social issues and trends are often reflected in images. In contrast, our culture today doesn’t heavily reflect our religious mindset through images. Maybe this is more telling than it would seem. Does this demonstrate that our culture places less importance on religious experience and spiritual practices?

I am a visual person, and very much effected by the aesthetic nature of my surroundings. My productivity is greatly increased when I work in certain environments. History appeals to me, so I find a peace and can concentrate and reflect more easily when I read historic books or look at old paintings, etc.   I enjoy working in my living room over my office at work. In non-religious practices, the importance of art is being recognized. A recent article in the Washington Post claims, “creating art is another way to access a meditative state of mind and the profound healing it brings.”[4]  Art therapy is a growing practice. This begs the question, has the American church failed to realize the importance of using the images and visual arts in the development of spiritual practices?

[1] David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

[2] Lee Palmer Wandel. A Companion to the Eucharist in the Reformation [eBook]


[3] David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
[4] Maia Gambis, Why Making Art Is the New Meditation, The Washington Post, August 25, 2015, accessed November 4, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/08/25/why-making-art-is-the-new-meditation/.

About the Author

Dawnel Volzke

Christ follower, wife, mom, teacher, student, professional...my passion is to serve Christ and my calling is to help organizations become great at fulfilling their mission.

8 responses to “Faith in pictures…”

  1. Nick Martineau says:

    Dawnel, Great post. I have also toured Italy and the Vacation and left with a similar thought as you when you said, “There is no dispute that art has influenced religious views, and that culture has influenced religious art.” While that’s easier to say about Italy it has to be true about America too, right? Which leads to your final question, “has the American church failed to realize the importance of using the images and visual arts in the development of spiritual practices?” I think we’d have to answer yes. What images and visual arts do people think about when they think about America? Not much comes to mind other than bad low budget christian movies. I do think the church in America is waking up to this and hopefully there are many more ways the church with engage with images and visual arts in the future.

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      Your post reminds me of The Passion. When the movie was done so well, it surprised many people. And, it had a huge impact throughout the church world. Many people’s vision of Christ was changed.

  2. Travis Biglow says:

    Wow Darnel, i know that your experience was great. I love art and think that we should have more things that speak to our time and religious experience. I love all the images that i saw in Hong Kong and South Africa. I hope that the images that inspire us our ones that are important and real.

  3. Mary Pandiani says:

    I’m intrigued by your question of asking if our culture places less importance on religious experience and spiritual practices. I don’t know if our culture does as much as the church seems to have some fears about what images could become if we’re not careful. It’s also become a matter of priorities – when a church doesn’t have the money to have a sanctuary, the choice of location usually becomes a less aesthetically attractive place.
    I’m curious as I’m thinking about your love of restoring furniture – is it just that you’ve redone something back into a beautiful piece, or is there something about the process that also speaks to you? I wonder if that could somehow be part of your worship 🙂

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      Hi Mary,
      I haven’t done any furniture restoration, but your memory is very good:) I have done quite a bit of decorating and collecting of antiques. There is something that I call the ‘creative zone’. The process, in fact, is as important as the final product produced. Thank you for thinking of this – it is a way for me to worship. I’ve also played the violin over the years. I can think and pray so much better when I am focused on my creative work, whether I am decorating or playing music. I used to get my violin out to play when I needed to think through something difficult.

  4. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Dawnel, While in Hong Kong I remembering being impressed with the idea that Buddhism was a “temple based” religion and Christianity was viewed as a “gathering based” religion. I wonder how much of that view speaks to the level of art and visual appreciation, function, and impact. Temple based, as I experienced fully relies on the visual. In a simplistic way the gathering based is very people and relationally dependent. I wonder how that initial difference impact’s the development and practices of the different faith’s and the difference of influence on culture that each form takes. Thanks for connecting in thoughts from the time in Hong Kong!

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      Interesting perspective – I hadn’t thought about Christianity as being gathering vs. temple based. In many way, Americans often show up to church as a ritual on Sunday mornings in the same way that we saw people visiting temples in Hong Kong to occasionally pray for good luck. Worshiping in church, as a temple, is a part of our Christian heritage. I think of King Solomon’s temple. The design of the temple itself propagates the idea that a visual worship experience could be important to our communion with God. Jesus lived on earth in a time where temple based worship was highly ingrained into the culture. Traditional temple practices were central to the worship experience, including sacrifice. Hence, Jesus’ focus was to be the ultimate and final sacrifice needed for man to have a relationship with God. Could it be that our heavier focus on relationships has distracted us from other visual forms of worship that are also important expressions of our faith? Another thought…we saw great care and keeping of temples and churches in Hong Kong…but here I see churches all over the place that are decaying due to lack of care. We even move out of old physical spaces to build what we feel is bigger and better, often without any regard to the old building and history of worship that it contained. Great posting!

    • Jon Spellman says:

      Phil, Dawnel, I think it has something to do with economics. If images, pictures, icons are important and central to belief system’s worship, and the times are very costly, only a central place – like a temple – can afford to have them! This economic reality will drive people to the temple rather than encouraging them to engage in worship wherever they may be…


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