Background for Teachers
Humankind made in the image of God to create
Where can we find the earliest evidence of the Arts being used to communicate beliefs and experiences?
The earliest evidence we have for visual art is found in the remarkable survival of pre-historic cave paintings located in many parts of the world. The full understanding of the meaning and purpose of these early artworks remains a focus of universal exploration and wonder. However, since then visual art has continued to be used by most societies as a powerful communicator of religious and political beliefs, of cultural values, and about man’s relationship with the natural environment, the wider universe and God. Storytelling as a way of sharing important information, beliefs, ideas within communities, as well as passing these between generations has been and continues to be integral to human life. Biblical drama sits within this longstanding oral tradition of communicating ideas and beliefs.
Christian interpretations of God’s guidelines about creating and using artwork
Biblical texts about creativity and making artwork has been interpreted at different times in human history
God’s commandments about creativity
Exodus 20 V 4 gives specific instructions about making and worshipping idols
“You must not make for yourselves any idols. Don’t make something that looks like anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the water below the land. 5 You must not worship or serve any idol. This is because I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God. A person may sin against me and hate me. I will punish his children, even his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 6 But I will be very kind to thousands who love me and obey my commands.”
Throughout Christian history, the church collectively, both different denominations and individuals have interpreted the Bibles guidelines about making artwork, in opposing ways. This has led to divisions between church traditions to the point where church communities were divided and aggression was used by one strand of the church against the other, led by the ruling powers. This period was called The Reformation.
There have been periods in history when art was the most common vehicle for religious communication. In Christian History some of the central accounts in the Bible, for example of Creation, Adam and Eve, King David, or Jesus’ birth, miracles, death and resurrection, have inspired paintings, sculptures, choral works and great architecture amongst many others. Some of our greatest buildings are historically places of worship, elaborately and beautifully designed in order to glorify or celebrate God.
By contrast there have also been periods in Christian history for example in the period of Iconoclasm (8th century) and Protestant reform (16th century) when visual art was considered inappropriate because it distracted from God Himself. A minority of Christians still consider it inappropriate to use the arts to express faith or as part of worship. In Islamic beliefs there are rules restricting some subjects and ways of using art in religious practices.
Jesus as a creative communicator
Jesus was probably the most creative and effective communicator of the Gospel that every lived. He demonstrated that he was alive to his creativity, using different artforms to communicate about the Kingdom of God. Jesus did not depend on the spoken word to get his message across. Instead he adapted the tools and vehicles of communication to suit each situation that he was called to.
Jesus used story-telling drama, symbol, objects, drawing, metaphor to communicate, drawing upon everyday objects in creative ways as illustrations to get his Gospel message across.
God invites believers to experience the ‘Word’ made flesh led by the spirit, using all our senses. Jesus is the ‘Word’ made flesh – expressed himself and communicated his message with the fullness of creativity. Jesus used all his senses to teach: storytelling, drama, metaphor, spoken word, drawing, poetry, prophecy, miracles, signs and wonders.
Christian believe that through belief in God through Christ as Saviour, that God-given identity, including creativity inherent in every person to be used to fulfil its original God-given purpose. This God given purpose is for humankind to choose to use their creativity to build the kingdom of God, love others and communicate the Gospel, enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Passion and Mystery Plays
Traditionally, plays were performed on decorated waggons that moved about the city to allow different crowds to watch each play. In the York Mystery Plays originally, 48 plays were performed by 48 different guilds, making one ‘cycle’ of Mystery Plays. The entire cycle could take up to 20 hours to perform and could be spread over a number of days. Guilds would perform stories relevant to their work; for example, the Shipwrights performed the Building of the Ark, butchers played the Death of Christ or Crucifixion.
The famous historic York Mystery Plays and others had their scripts confiscated during the Reformation in 1569 and were dormant for the next four hundred years. “In 1951, the York Mystery Plays were revived in a performance on a fixed stage in the Museum Gardens, a tradition which lasted until 1988. These were followed by performances in York Theatre Royal in 1992 and 1996. Other fixed stage performances have taken place in 2000 and 2016 at York Minster and in 2012 the plays were presented in the Museum Gardens.”
For more information on Passion Play traditions www.passiontrust.org
Global traditions of re-enacting the Gospel
Catholic pageants are performed all over the world, particularly during Easter week, and are often an integral part of many Catholic communities across the globe.
You can use some of the following examples:
- The predominantly Catholic Philippines have Passion Plays called Senakulo (upper room), that are performed by theatre and community groups every Holy Week.
- Oberammergau in Germany, performs an incredibly popular passion play every 10 years. It was first performed in 1634 and today includes 2000 actors, singers, instrumentalists and technicians, all residents of the village. Find out more passionplaytours.com