Covering our Tracks
Covering our Tracks

Covering our Tracks

If we lose our aesthetic heritage, we lose the means to speak to an age enchanted by images.
December 1 st 2015
Appears in Winter 2015

As long as I can remember, I have been looking for footprints left by Christians who lived before me. I wanted evidence that the faith I belong to had left a lasting mark on the earth, for proof that others had found this faith to be real. In short, I was looking for the artifacts of Christian memory, artifacts that began in the everyday lives of men and women who shared my faith in Christ.

Coming of age in a fundamentalist Baptist tradition in the turbulent 1960s, I saw little art that supported my faith. Though churches then still looked like churches, rather than the warehouse churches prevalent in Southern California, where I now live, art was absent. In fact, people in my tradition still considered art—sculpture or painting—to be suspect, idolatry rather than an aid to worship.

...the church was understood as an embassy of the kingdom of God, the promised new Jerusalem, on earth.

Inside the first church I attended, a stucco building with a square tower and a "Believe on Jesus Christ" sign in neon mounted over the front door, stairs led up to the sanctuary— a large rectangular room with a baptistery to the left, a stage with a pulpit in the center, a Communion table below in front of it. To the right of the stage, an organ sat off to one side of a choir loft. On the wall above, words in brown plastic letters read: "He that hath the Son hath life." The room was painted Baptist buff, its own shade of beige with a little yellow in it. Ceiling fans brought a welcome breeze in summer. And there were stained glass windows—colors only, no images, surrounding translucent colorless squares. The pews were a warm maple color, curved to suit the space. I liked them. This was church.

Until I went to Europe at the age of nineteen, in 1969, I had never been in any other kind of worship space. I can't now remember which great church I entered first. St. Paul's in London? St. Peter's in Rome? The Duomo in Florence? San Vitale in Ravenna? San Marco in Venice? Notre Dame in Paris? But after that trip, church back home never looked the same. At the very least, I was sure I had been missing something. And now I longed for more.

An art history class that covered the time from the ancient Middle East through the Romanesque period in Europe gave me more background on the kinds of buildings and images my Christian forebears had created. It wasn't, however, until years later, when I had the opportunity to travel and explore at length, that I began to trace the footprints I had been seeking. I began to see concrete aids to a Christian memory— mementos of a living faith.

Caravaggio—for all his reported swagger and arrogance—looked at people squarely, painted them as they were—pilgrims with grimy, cracked feet and work-reddened hands.


My travels began with the more familiar in Western Europe—the churches of the Renaissance and Reformation, the art in museums like the National Gallery in London, the Louvre, the Uffizi in Florence, the Accademia in Venice. I kept going back, drinking deep from the well. But I wanted to go further back in time. That led to months spent in Greece, Turkey, and Egypt, then back to Rome to see the churches built before the year 1000. The more I looked and read, the more I under- stood that paintings, mosaics, sculpture, and buildings are concrete, visual witnesses to the faith at the heart of the message of Christ— both expressions of faith and aids to greater worship and devotion. They were also signposts to a watching world.

It was a Russian scholar and friend, Alexei Lidov, director of the Centre for World Culture at Moscow State University, who helped me understand what I was seeing, what I loved so much without fully understanding why.

We long to be in Beauty. Jonathan Edwards wrote that we can't love God until we first love his loveliness, his Beauty. Lidov explained that this understanding is at the heart of the Eastern Christian tradition. Hagia Sophia, the great church built by the emperor Justinian in five years between 532 and 537 in what is now Istanbul, is a prime example. The church functioned as what Lidov describes as a "spatial icon," a space where the art, the architecture, the decoration, the music, the incense, the feel of the wall marble, the liturgy, all work together as one entity. Each person there is not merely seeing beautiful things, he or she is inside Beauty. A participant.

For many, Eastern Orthodox icons are the paragon of Christian art. But as Lidov explained, icons and religious images are two very different things. Icons are mediating images—images that lead us to God. Religious images are didactic—they teach us principles of the faith. What's more, Lidov continued, none of these images can be fully understood when taken out of context. They are parts of spaces, sacred spaces, that are a human art form on their own. Though Western Christian images fall into Lidov's category of religious images, he admits that some definitely emit the fragrance of the sacred.

...Caravaggio's work speaks today not just because of its audacity and Beauty but because he seems to know what it is we all go through.

Starting in the fourth century, when it became legal to build actual churches, Christians conceived of their buildings as three-dimensional theological statements. For most the church was understood as an embassy of the kingdom of God, the promised new Jerusalem, on earth. When you entered the church, you were on holy ground, in the new Jerusalem. Primarily in the East, over your head was a dome representing the dome of heaven, and at its center was Christ Pantocrator, Christ in glory. Around you were frescoes or mosaics of the saints of the Old and New Testaments and more recent martyrs and confessors: the cloud of witnesses who had gone before. The faithful, living and dead, worshipped together. Churches are monuments—physical reminders that tell a particular story. They function as mementoes of death and life. Each building serves as a memento mori and a memento vivere—a call to remember death, and a reminder of where true life is to be found. The building, the art, the singing, the liturgy enacting the story of the faith, all worked together to create a whole, a sacred space, a space that bore witness to Christian history.


The Beauty of Hagia Sophia was a compelling witness to the reality of God. For more than nine hundred years, Justinian's church was the greatest church in Christendom, a witness to the glory and grandeur of God. And it was convincing. In fact, the glory of Hagia Sophia was so great it played a central role in the Russian prince Vladimir's conversion to Christianity. Looking for a more satisfying religion, Vladimir sent envoys to his longtime trading partners in the Byzantine capital. As the Russian Primary Chronicle records, the Beauty of Hagia Sophia was the deciding factor in their recommendation to convert to Orthodoxy.

We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such Beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that Beauty.

In the West, few churches were built on the Eastern model. One early exception is San Vitale in Ravenna. This church is an octagon with a dome, begun in 526 under the Ostrogoths and completed in 547 after Justinian and the Byzantines had regained control of the city. The mosaics of a young Christ in glory, seated in the new Jerusalem, were done in 526, but the remarkable mosaics of Justinian and his wife The odora were completed after 547, anticipating an imperial visit that never came to pass. My first visit to the church, still standing, in 1969 was a lifechanging experience, though I had no idea then of its history or significance. seems we are in danger of losing our visual-aesthetic heritage, and with it our ability to communicate to a world enchanted by the image.

Here Christ is young, the Alexander the Great version of a youthful, clean-shaven Christ. Soon Christ would only be seen as older with a beard and mustache. This young Christ sits on the rainbow as described in Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Revelation. He is inviting us to join him in the new Jerusalem, our eternal home. Though the dome now is a baroque creation and I don't know what, if anything, was there originally, the mosaics on side walls tell the story of redemption, from creation and the fall, to the three angels appearing to Abraham, the Old Testament Trinity, and on to the gospel of Jesus.

Between 793 and 813, the emperor Charlemagne built a whole church in his capital at Aachen, Germany, as a three-dimensional icon of the new Jerusalem. Most scholars agree that San Vitale was his model. The Aachen church itself is designed to welcome Christ when he returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. Th is building, like San Vitale, is an octagon, the seven days of creation plus the eighth day of resurrection and new life. The ceiling was originally a mosaic, glittering and golden, showing the twenty-four elders of Revelation bringing their crowns to Christ. It was copied for the later nineteenth-century restoration. The mosaic band at the base of the dome bears an inscription saying that all the numbers have meaning and that Charlemagne built the church. The chandelier, given by Frederic Barbarossa, or Redbeard, in the twelfth century, represents the wall of Jerusalem, here with eight gates instead of twelve in order to harmonize with the building.

The gallery above the Aachen chandelier, held up by thirty-two stone pillars given by Popes Hadrian and Leo III (only twenty-one are left thanks to French troops at the time of the French Revolution) is the setting for the throne where Christ is invited to sit to judge the world. Research has found that it is made of marble from Jerusalem. On one side is the carving of a game found throughout the ancient Roman world. And there are graffiti in the shape of crosses, leading some to believe the stone may actually have come from the Chapel of the True Cross in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Certainly, we know that Charlemagne had a good relationship with the Muslim Sultan Harun al-Rashid. So the marble of the throne may actually be the sultan's gift to the Western ruler. Originally it looked straight across to the Salvation Altar, connecting salvation to judgment and to eternal life. Later, in the fourteenth century, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV added a heavenlike chapel to honor Charlemagne and the relics of the Savior. His inspiration was the thirteenthcentury Sainte Chapelle in Paris, built by the French King St. Louis to house the relic of the crown of thorns. That chapel, too, embodied the new Jerusalem. All of this was in imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem with its dome over the place where Jesus rose from the dead. These buildings echoed that sacred spot.

In the West, churches were more often built on the model of the Roman basilica, the rectangular public space where people brought their concerns to the emperor or his representative. Even there, it was understood that the worshipper was entering the new Jerusalem, as in the eleventh-century Notre Dame le Grande in Poitiers, where a sign, in French, explains that this church was built as a terrestrial image of the heavenly world, an icon of the new Jerusalem.

My favorite example, though, is the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Naumburg, Germany. The original church became a cathedral in 1028, but a chapel to honor those founders wasn't built for another two centuries, in 1248.

Imagine yourself there with me now. Step into the nave, the choir to the East. To the West, a stone screen with brilliant red light filtering through. Read the story in stone. The Last Supper. Judas taking the silver, his face a portrait of despair. The treacherous kiss in Gethsemane. Peter with his sword, severing the servant's ear from his head. Christ before Pilate, terror in the governor's eyes. The flogging. Christ struggling on the road to Calvary. Front and center, the cross, the doorpost, "the gateway" to heaven, in the words of the fourth-century African theologian Tyconius. Above, Christ's bleeding arms forming the lintels of the door. Mary in agony to your left. Grieving John to your right. Take a step, another and another. Walk through the cross with me.

Covering our Tracks

Blink your eyes. Ahead is light. Just above, the founders of the church stand poised to step down and welcome you. Beyond the altar, in radiant red, yellow, blue, and green, the prophets, apostles, saints, and Virtues call out. Higher still, the Trinity, and Christ in glory. All welcome you into glory. Into heaven. Into the realm of your ultimate citizenship. The new Jerusalem.


Let's turn now from sacred spaces to some of those religious pictures Lidov admits exude the scent of the sacred. In 2005, my husband and I were fortunate to sponsor "Caravaggio: The Final Years," curated by Dawson Carr at the National Gallery in London. The show covered the images this rock-star Baroque artist painted in the four years he was on the run in Naples, Malta, and Sicily for killing a man in Rome. Nearly all of the images Caravaggio painted in those years had biblical themes. To me he seemed to be painting with every stroke out of his fear and his desperate need for forgiveness. At this show more than 240,000 people stood in line to see paintings such as David and Goliath, in which the latter's gaping face is Caravaggio's own.

But there is something else in these paintings— the void. The story is frequently told that, coming out of a church, Caravaggio did not dip his hand in the holy water. A friend asked why not. Caravaggio reputedly said: "All my sins are mortal." Meaning he didn't think holy water would help him. That despair is in the void. It is the void before creation—of the world itself, and of our becoming new creatures in Christ.

I had noticed this void in other works, particularly those of Giotto in the early fourteenth- century Scrovegni Chapel in Padua and those of Giandomenico Tiepolo's eighteenth- century Stations of the Cross in Venice's San Polo. If you look at Giotto's images, particularly of the resurrection and a few others but hinted at in most, you see an expanse of clear blue balancing the figures and the action. There is an airy quality to the painting that I don't think is entirely attributable to restoration. That same airy quality is visible in Tiepolo too, and, with it, space and a balancing of figure with space. You see it particularly in the Stations of the Ecce Homo and the nailing on the cross. Tiepolo had likely seen Giotto's images, since Padua is just thirty-five miles west of Venice.

Covering our Tracks

Caravaggio lived between the two. I don't know if he ever went to Padua. He might have seen the Giottos in Florence. But I don't think he got the void from Giotto. There are some voids in his early work, but they increase in number and size in the last four years. Clearly he was dealing with his own void. It's curious. In Japanese art, space and image form a balancing act. Scandinavian design is much the same. But in Italian art, it's rare—oddly in Giotto, Caravaggio (where it's dark), and Tiepolo. I think of Robert Frost's poem "Desert Places":

I have it in me so much nearer home,
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Clearly, Caravaggio had and knew them. We all do. We all come to terms with or avoid our inner and outer voids. That's part of Caravaggio's enormous appeal—he knew the human dilemma, the terror and ecstasy of the human heart. He told us about it— in images.

Covering our Tracks

Caravaggio—for all his reported swagger and arrogance—looked at people squarely, painted them as they were, pilgrims with grimy, cracked feet and work-reddened hands. His Madonnas had worked, had seen good and evil; it showed in their faces. And ever more often, there hangs over them a void, a darkness, threatening to engulf them but never quite doing so. It is always there, however, and they perform their actions in the face of it.

Most of Caravaggio's Christian images were for churches. Some were rejected because he used models thought inappropriate, such as a prostitute as the Virgin Mary. But, as I said, Caravaggio's work speaks today not just because of its audacity and Beauty but because he seems to know what it is we all go through. Icons? Hardly. Teaching images? In a very modern way.


Caravaggio is a bridge to the present. Something happened in the nineteenth century. Artists like Gustave Courbet argued that true art was based on feeling, without perspective or point of view. It may be that Christian patrons decided to commission works based on their own feelings. So even the Catholic Church began to commission bad, sentimental art. Protestants had thrown the image baby out with the bathwater in the Reformation, at least for the adornment of churches. And Pietist traditions such as my own had never embraced anything more artistic than the equivalent of brown plastic letters on Baptist buff walls. Today's warehouse churches are much the same. All kinds of high-tech music equipment but no images, other than the faces of the worshippers on giant screens around the room, and often not even any windows, let alone stained glass.

To me, it seems we are in danger of losing our visual aesthetic heritage, and with it our ability to communicate to a world enchanted by the image. We are also losing our memory and, with it, we are failing to leave our own three-dimensional witness to our faith. What tangible witness do we create? Will we leave any footprints for others to find? Will there be any evidence that we believed? Just a few years ago a large church in a major city had the opportunity to build a new sanctuary. There were artists, some of considerable consequence, in the congregation. The artists were not consulted. The sanctuary is a bare space, no art, with a stage.

Covering our Tracks

But there is some hope. About ten years ago a Danish friend took me to see a church built in 1997 in Ishoj, a suburb of Copenhagen. It was the last work of one of Denmark's great modern architects, Willem Wohlert, and a younger Danish artist named Peter Brandes. I stepped inside and could not believe what I saw. Glory. Not Hagia Sophia. Not San Vitale or Naumburg's St. Peter and St. Paul. But glory all the same.

The design echoed the classic Romanesque Danish church—a white bell tower connected to a whitewashed stone building. Wohlert used the essential geometric building blocks— the cube, the tetrahedron, the cylinder. Brandes adopted the same approach, using the primary colors—red, yellow, blue—and their complementaries. In the triangles created by the tetrahedrons, the gospel story was told, from Cain killing Abel, the sacrifice of Isaac, and the suffering of Job, to Gethsemane, the raising of Lazarus, and the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All in contemporary visual vocabulary.

Since then I have become friends with Brandes and his wife Maja Lisa Engelhardt.

They have now done work in California and Michigan—four 350-square-foot stainedglass windows by Peter and a gilded bronze cross by Maja Lisa were dedicated at Cornerstone University's Christ Chapel in September. A year ago Maja Lisa and the Danish friend who introduced me to Peter's work led a group of American Christian women on a tour of the Romanesque churches Maja Lisa and Peter had helped renovate in Denmark. Most of the women worshipped in evangelical warehouse churches. At the end of the trip, two of them told me: "We didn't know what we didn't know!"

Part of what they didn't know is the history of our faith as it has been "written" in liturgy, stone, glass, marble, wood, terracotta, and paint. This summer I put the Ishoj church to the ultimate test. I took Alexei Lidov there. He stepped inside much as I had ten years before. Stunned, he sat. He looked. He pronounced. "It is a monument," he said; a physical reminder that stands as a witness to an empty tomb.

Roberta Green Ahmanson
Roberta Green Ahmanson

Roberta Green Ahmanson is a writer and speaker who lives with her husband in Orange County, California. A former newspaper religion reporter, her current work focuses on the intellectual roots of current trends as well as the relationships between art, religion, culture, and history.


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