Artists themselves have regarded the Bible as a treasure trove of inspiration, a vocabulary, if you will. Why is this so? Biblical characters resonate with people today, and of all ages. Their stories are very much like our own.
Sacred Scripture has thus become a sort of “immense vocabulary” (Paul Claudel) and “iconographic atlas” (Marc Chagall), from which both Christian culture and art have drawn. The Old Testament, read in the light of the New, has provided endless streams of inspiration. From the stories of the Creation and sin, the Flood, the cycle of the Patriarchs, the events of the Exodus to so many other episodes and characters in the history of salvation, the biblical text has fired the imagination of painters, poets, musicians, playwrights and film-makers. A figure like Job, to take but one example, with his searing and ever relevant question of suffering, still arouses an interest which is not just philosophical but literary and artistic as well. And what should we say of the New Testament? From the Nativity to Golgotha, from the Transfiguration to the Resurrection, from the miracles to the teachings of Christ, and on to the events recounted in the Acts of the Apostles or foreseen by the Apocalypse in an eschatological key, on countless occasions the biblical word has become image, music and poetry, evoking the mystery of “the Word made flesh” in the language of art.
Believers have been inspired. But we Christians also know that artists, believers and not, inspire others, believers and not, to deeper reflection on the Christian faith through their depictions of our stories and our saints. It’s as good a reason as any to cultivate dialogue, deeper gazing, and other mutually enriching experiences:
In the history of human culture, all of this is a rich chapter of faith and beauty. Believers above all have gained from it in their experience of prayer and Christian living. Indeed for many of them, in times when few could read or write, representations of the Bible were a concrete mode of catechesis.(This pedagogical principle was given authoritative formulation by Saint Gregory the Great in a letter of 599 to Serenus, Bishop of Marseilles: “Painting is employed in churches so that those who cannot read or write may at least read on the walls what they cannot decipher on the page”, Epistulae, IX, 209: CCL 140A, 1714) But for everyone, believers or not, the works of art inspired by Scripture remain a reflection of the unfathomable mystery which engulfs and inhabits the world.
No doubt, there is much potential for evangelization. Or anti-evangelization.
Pope John Paul II’s Letter To Artists is available in its entirety online here.