Ars Gratia Artis


This is for my daughter – who is a young artist and in the Governor’s School for the Arts this summer. I say this is for her – though I’m not sure she reads the blog everyday – and, of course, I’m letting the rest of you thousand or two people read it, too, so I guess this is for all of us.

The question: what is art?

I watched a wonderful video that my daughter produced on the subject. Now I have to add my two cents, which are mostly a critique of Enlightenment and modern thought on the subject of art, and a suggestion of art’s true home.

Human beings have always done activities that today we describe as art. But generally, those activities in most cultures throughout most of time were done for religious purposes. Artistic work was a work of devotion, or a work of magic (in some religious settings). In various civilizations art would spring out into different directions – though its roots were still in temple and altar.

In Christianity, of course (and my daughter knows this, I know), we produced icons as devotional items. An icon makes present that which it represents. When we gather in worship, surrounded by icons, we are surrounded by the saints. Traditionally icons were and are painted anonymously (though I can think of numerous exceptions to this) – precisely because the icon is about the saint, or Christ, or the Theotokos, and not about the painter.

During the Renaissance (when greater learning about the “arts” was brought to Western Europe by exiled Byzantines) we begin to see a new movement, “art for art’s sake.” Indeed, it was almost the birth of “art” as “art” (art no longer serving a religious purpose exclusively). Today, art has frequently become almost exclusively about the artist – representing thoughts or feelings. Artists become heroes or at least culture “icons” (ironically).

But there is a root of art that remains and will never fade away. It is the use of art as a means of knowing God, of understanding our relationship with Him. The Seventh Council taught, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” This is a deeply profound theological statement, revealing much about the meaning of icons and their very nature.

I strongly suspect that even in modern “art for art’s sake” there is a religious root – maybe not recognized – certainly not properly tutored or directed – but we were created for God and our “instinct” for God, if I can use such a phrase, has never truly disappeared. And though our hunger for God is frequently deeply hidden in the work and the art we make, nevertheless it remains.

I would even say the same, despite its many abuses, about music. God Himself sings (Zeph. 3:17), the Scriptures tell us, and thus, I believe, we sing as well. We just do not always know the right song or Whom to sing it to.

The greatest and deepest joys that we know as human beings, is when we know how to sing, and to Whom to sing. When we know how to paint, and Whom to paint. Our singing and our painting, of course, are not confined to that alone, but they never become what they could be until they find the place from where they come.

I would say the same is true of the written word. And so we write, we sing, we paint, we dance, we do all of these wonderfully human and marvelous activities – but they all have at their root the Song of Heaven, the Hymn of God, the Dance of the Angels, the Word of God, the very Face of God in Christ reflecting to us our own true selves, created in His image. May we all, artists of Creation, serve as artists of the Creator, to Whom be praise.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



9 responses to “Ars Gratia Artis”

  1. Cameron Avatar

    “The greatest and deepest joys that we know as human beings, is when we know how to sing, and to Whom to sing…”

    I’ve always sensed something “off” in the idea of art for art’s sake. I think you’ve summed it up well, Fr.

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr. you left out theater which has its roots in the tribal corporate prayer or ritualistic dance. In other words, it is liturgical in origin, invoking the presence and the blessings of the gods. Now unfortunately, it is used to invoke all kinds of things or simply to entertain and divert.

    I will never forget an experience I had with my wife before we were married. A big department store in Boston held an Asian Festival as an attraction. Part of the festival was a brief performance of a NO play right in the middle of the bustling store. NO theater is an ancient, higly symbolic Japanese form. As we stood entranced, watching one performance of a love story, the stylized movements of the characters accompanied by the traditional NO music, we both burst into tears at the percise moment one of the charaters made a specific movement on a music cue. It was an amazing example of the invocative power of theater. NO performers train their entire lives to be able to make the movements of play the music exactly as tradition prescribes. Real performances can continue for days.

    How much more is possible in the Divine Liturgy! How short our attention span when we start to complain after a mere hour or so or become bored by the repetition. Even worse when we seek to “modernize” the Liturgy to make it more “relevant”. We have so much to learn!

  3. leatherbear Avatar

    I have to say that my first experience of a Divine Liturgy was the movement, use of space, the music / singing and the icons on the wall was the overwhelming power of these things in the service of God.

    Having experienced only the British Anglicanism of my youth I was not aware of the power of liturgy to be so all encompassing and powerful in directing my mind and spirit towards God.

    I have to say I think “art for art’s sake” or “l’art pour l’art” is mid to late nineteenth century and is a development to the Romantic movement – it was applied by the art historians through whom we see the renaissance as starting then – but I am not sure it did. Interestingly two Americans – Edgar Allen Poe and James McNeill Whistler are exploring the idea – and so it perhaps can ne seen as a part of the modernist agenda rather than the enlightenment one.

  4. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Pascha itself is God’s Divine Liturgy. Of course, our Liturgy is that Liturgy made possible for us in the mystery of Christ. Ultimately, thank God, the perfection of Liturgy was made complete in the sacrifice and triumph of Christ, securing as well the perfection and completion of the Church’s Liturgy. Fortunately, our perfection here is not needed (as would be the case in magic) to make the Great Liturgy complete or perfect.

    Nevertheless, I think we frequently fail to see the depths or hear the full sound of what the Liturgy is – too easily reducing it to a “Sunday Church service,” not seeing that we reduce ourselves as well. It is always nothing less than God’s Pascha.

  5. nancy Avatar

    In my nearly ten years of being Orthodox, I have learned to appreciate true, incarnational beauty in art, especially in icons, in liturgical music, and even in architecture, although Orthodox Churches in the New World have a long way to go in building beautiful Churches for the glory of God.

    As you say above, icons teach us how to know God, but the beauty of the Orthodox Faith is found in all the liturgical expressions found in our services. It is true that the Faith can be expressed in a store front Church as well as a Cathedral, but its fullest expression is seen in the creation of beautiful temples and beautiful lservices performed by conscientious priests and deacons who lead us to “heaven on earth.”

  6. Fatherstephen Avatar


    I think I’m in general agreement, although the fullness, regardless of temple or talent, is found in a cup held before us. I think, too, of the other-wordly liturgy described in Fr. Arseny, which takes place (sort of) in an icy punishment cell in Siberia, which instead becomes the heavenly liturgy as he prays. The mystery goes beyond even conscientiousness, because it is a gift of grace. The graciousness of the gift is never an excuse for priest or deacon to be less than conscientious – it’s just that it’s beyond our own power to make what is beyond our reach present – only the gift of God can do so.

    My experience as a priest is of moments when that gift surprises me. It is always a joy to serve with someone whose heart is “fixed” as the Psalmist says, and centered on God. Such a person becomes part of that gift of God. Imagine, too, a service in which all of the congregation is at peace with one another and has forgiven one another, wanting nothing more than the goodness of God for one another. The gift flows throughout the assembly of the Church – and by the same token – is sometimes brought to a screeching halt as we sinfully reject what has been offered. Lord have mercy.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar


    I am guilty of shooting history with a scattergun sometimes – I’m sure your more nuanced account is more accurate. But we do begin to see the growth of the cult of the artist in the renaissance even if it did not truly flower until much later (though perhaps the cult of the artist was read back into history). Hmmm.

  8. […] Stephen with an essay on art at Glory to God for All Things, which ties in to an essay I hope to write tonight previewing […]

  9. nancy Avatar

    Thank you for your wise words, Father Stephen. I need to be reminded of the things you say. Right and beautiful worship goes beyond the “trappings” to the soul, and when that happens, it is a true gift from God.

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