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God and Art

By Mitiku Adisu
Golgotha, Gebre-Kristos Desta, 1963. 183 × 122 cm.
 The Last Judgment, Afewerk Tekle, 1958, 3 x 2.5 meters
Several themes are worth looking into when considering the relationship of Art to God. First, God is the Creator of all things seen and unseen. Humans create because they are created in the image of their Creator. God is the One who bestows creativity as well as the Supreme architect behind all genres of art. Art is, therefore, part of creation. Artists are simply co-creators with God – whether they recognize Him or not.

Throughout history works of art have represented religious motifs. These served to instruct the illiterate laity in the ways of Church doctrine and devotion to and veneration for the Holy. One is amazed at how much of today’s Art in Ethiopia has been influenced by the Church. Of course, there were instances where the Church condemned a work of art as the work of the devil. Socialist revolutionists also condemned as reactionary and bourgeois art that, in their parlance, “did not reflect socialist realism.” Capitalists have put their hopes and values in the "invisible hands" of the market.

Second, God is beautiful. Look at the created order around you. Look at the sunrise, the full moon, the rolling hills, the shifting desert sand, the motionless butterfly, the foaming sea, the songbird; the stranger you just passed by. Colors, colors, colors; ordered shapes and figures. These are all beautiful because they are created by God; and what God created is ‘good.’ [Genesis 1] The Psalmist captures this beautifully [in psalm 104: 1-2]:
O Lord my God, you are very great;
You are clothed with splendor and majesty
He wraps himself in light as with a garment;
Third, there is such thing as 'Christian' art. What makes a work of art good and ‘Christian’ is that it represents truth [is truthful to Creation and to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ]; what makes bad art is that it negates or opposes the Creator and his Creation. The danger always is when the painter attempts to usurp the place due the Creator or when the object becomes an end in itself, thus hindering one from coming in contact with the Ultimate Beauty.

As in the paintings by two illustrious painters above, Ethiopians are no different in this from medieval Europeans. If there ever were exceptions it is that, as the art historian and Ethiopianist Stanislaw Chojnacki put it,
The environment, the exceptional luminosity of the very air of Ethiopia, and her centuries of culture are such powerful factors that we can confidently expect every artist to find himself as an Ethiopian artist, whatever training - most useful in itself - he has received.
Ethiopians seem to also take their religiosity too far – especially in the way they do politics, in the way they defend their side of a story or neglect to show respect for fellow Ethiopians created in the image of God. May be we should be meditating on art more and strive to create beautiful things!


Anonymous said…
Excellent article. Perhaps it also should be pointed out that the object of worship is God. In too many cases of especially good art it is the product of the artist that is worshiped rather than God. Sometime, it is the artist who become the focus of worship rather than God who alone is worthy of worship.