I very much enjoyed visiting the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul over 10 years ago. It was fascinating to wander, look up, explore, peer, reflect, and take photos. I really liked one of my photos of the mosaic Christ Pantocrator both for the beauty of the mosaic and its visual message and for the sunlight at that moment. However, I find myself ambivalent at the recent news of the Turkish court ruling that the 1934 decision to make the Hagai Sophia into a museum was unlawful. It had been a mosque for about 500 years before and an Orthodox Cathedral about 1,000 years before that. Yes, it is a building with a past and some of that past was catching up it seems. As I was pleased to hear about churches and cathedrals in former communist lands becoming places of worship again, so I could imagine Muslims pleased with this news in Istanbul. But I can also imagine the ongoing discomfort and disappointment of Christians who long for the day when Hagia Sophia might be used as it was originally built.
Buildings don’t build themselves. They are constructed for a purpose and yes buildings can be repurposed. Buildings have function and meaning important to us. Architecture, aesthetics, and beauty speak to us and shape us.
Statues are all around us and they are generating lots of emotion. Statues don’t build themselves. Builders of statues have a purpose, a reason, a goal – to describe someone or something in a particular way. I recall the world’s reaction of despair at the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan just as I recall different reactions to the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and the controversy about the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol and the sudden appearance of the statue of Jen Reid in its place. Sculpture, artwork, and tapestry speak to us and shape us.
This is true in the world and in the Church. Christian visual arts express the truth of the Incarnation – that God who is Spirit has entered our world visibly in the person of Jesus. The Word became flesh – and the ears don’t give way to the eyes, it is just that there is something for the eyes to see when the Word is heard. It is when the message via the eyes dominates or differs from the ears that iconoclasm arises and the cries of idolatry and destruction are heard. Emotions run hot for and against Christian visual arts because items, artwork, and places impact us deeply. We are visual, physical, and auditory people shaped by what we see, where we are, and what we hear.
Jesus said, ‘He who has ears, let him hear’ (Matthew 13:9) and ‘Those who hear you, hear me’ (Luke 10:16a) and ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life (John 5:24a). At his ascension, Jesus stopped us having to go to him at a certain place but rather he comes to us and speaks to us and he directs to use water, bread and wine in his name. That architecture and art can surround such words is wonderful. But architecture and art do not need to surround such words for the Word is powerful because God in Jesus is speaking.
At Ascension, we ‘dress up’ our rented church somewhat. We don’t have to do this for God to be present. But we do so to help us to hear, to focus, and to engage with the Word. Our online services are not exactly beautiful as we do not contemplate art and architecture but they are functional because they provide the one thing needed – God’s Word.
There are no simple answers about buildings repurposed, statues, and the quality, role, and purpose of the visual arts. I hope the discussion about these things never ends and that visual arts flourish but I also hope that we don’t become deaf to the Word of God, to words, water, bread and wine which can come to us anywhere. Because that’s the point, God comes to us in Christ Jesus. GS