All our Treasures: A Musician’s Care for the Visual Arts

“Poet, painter, music-maker, all your treasures bring …”
—David Mowbray, “Come to Us, Creative Spirit” (ELW 687, st. 2)

Throughout this anniversary year, many of our congregations have been invited into deeper engagement with aspects of the Reformation’s musical heritage, both in thought and practice. Venerable chorales have been clothed in fresh arrangements and gathered in collections such as Anne Krentz Organ’s Piano Reflections on Chorale Tunes and Karl Osterland’s A Wittenberg Collection: Lutheran Chorales for Organ. In the 2017 edition of Sundays and Seasons, Mark Mummert reminds us how the Hymn of the Day originated and why it remains central to the assembly’s proclamation. Those who participated at this year’s Institute of Liturgical Studies met around the theme, “Liturgy Serving The Life of the Church: How Worship Re-forms Us.” The Association of Lutheran Church Musicians will hear plenaries at their July 2017 conference about “Re-forming Congregational Song” and “Re-Membering the Role of the Cantor.”

Though this is a blog devoted to musical planning, we musicians do well to remember that a thoughtful anniversary commemoration should also engage the Reformation’s artistic heritage. In addition to musical decisions, many of us carry some responsibility for choices about visual art—bulletin covers, posters, Facebook banners, newsletter articles—seen by both lifelong congregation members and first-time visitors. While we like to cite Luther’s musicianship and his awareness of music’s pedagogical and formative power, we sometimes forget that he was equally attuned to how the Word is proclaimed in ways that engage the eyes. In Wittenberg, he was a close friend of the artist Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1472–1553, and heavily involved in the production of his writings by the Wittenberg presses. In 1518, after receiving proofs for one of his publications, Luther complained to a friend that, “it is printed so poorly, so carelessly and confusedly, to say nothing of the bad typefaces and paper”!(Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation, 140)

The print revolution of Luther’s time is not unlike the digital revolution of our own: decisions about the placement of words and images in blogs, e-newsletters, bulletins continue to require thoughtful care, for each offers an invitation to encounter the holy. In her 2004 book The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community, Robin M. Jensen reminds us that “no matter how we respond” to visual cues, we emerge from those encounters “slightly or significantly different” from simply having given them thought. In his 2007 book Graphic Design and Religion: A Call for Renewal, Daniel Kantor places decisions about visual elements alongside the monastic tradition of manuscript illumination. He writes that both illuminators of generations past and graphic designers of the present “teach us that the communications of one’s faith are still worth of our best efforts and brightest talents,” that “the hospitality of visual grace can become prayer for both maker and viewer.” (There’s also a great story about the physical design of Evangelical Lutheran Worship in Kantor’s introduction!)

Like our musical selections, we are blessed with an abundance of visual choices that assist proclamation of the gospel across Sundays, seasons, and festivals of the church year. As you prepare to enter the time after Pentecost, perhaps you can give thought to ways in which the Spirit has worked through visual art, be it oil paint on cardboard or bronze sculpture. These are not mere decorations, but essential tools for drawing focused attention to the central symbols in our midst and images in the lectionary. In addition to resources such as the Evangelical Lutheran Worship Graphics CD-ROM and Eileen Crowley’s A Moving Word: Media Art in Worship (a contribution to the Worship Matters series), you might consult some of the following books, articles, and websites in order to build a library of visual art that speaks best to your context. And if choices about visual art are not part of your “official” responsibilities, perhaps you can share these resources and begin a conversation with other worship planners and leaders in your setting. Like Bezalel and Oholiab, let all of us be filled with “with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft” (Exodus 31:3–5). Or, as we sing in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, “in our worship and our living keep us striving for the best” (ELW 687, st. 4).

Books and Articles

Databases and Collections

Individual Artists

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Chad Fothergill

Chad Fothergill is a graduate student at Temple University, Philadelphia, where he researches the Lutheran cantor tradition in both its Reformation-era and present-day contexts. Outside of coursework and research, he is active as a substitute church musician in the greater Philadelphia and New York City metropolitan areas. He has served congregations and campus ministries in Minnesota, Iowa, and Pennsylvania.