There is no replacement to the discipline of reading a good book and/or going through deep soul-searching while looking at a painted masterpiece.
At the mid-point of the fifteenth century there were only a few thousand books in all of Europe.
These were hand-copied by skilled scholars and the books were mostly kept in university libraries away from the general public who could neither access them nor read them.
By the turn of the century, a few decades later, there were over a million books in Europe and the barriers to the democratisation of knowledge were beginning to crumble.
The explanation for this dramatic change was the invention of the printing press using a movable types system by Johannes Gutenberg (1400 – 1468). And what a change that was.
The first book to be printed in Europe using movable type was the Gutenberg Bible.
Prior to the invention of the printing press it took about 200 – 300 sheep skins for printing the text of the full Bible. The whole process was expensive and complicated. Now, because of the printing press, the Bible became affordable and accessible.
Luther’s reforming message of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ would never have become a lived reality if ordinary people could not buy a Bible and own it as a personal possession. God’s words printed on paper for the true believer to read, understand and obey were hugely significant.
At the same time, in the Muslim world, printing was strongly opposed throughout the early modern period. In 1515, Sultan Selim I of the Ottoman Empire, issued a decree under which the practice of printing would be punishable by death.
Samuel Hartlib, a German polymath exiled in Britain, wrote in 1641 that ‘the art of printing will so spread knowledge that the common people, knowing their own rights and liberties, will not be governed by way of oppression’.
Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities argued that the print revolution was a centrally important factor that laid the foundations for the development of national consciousness.
Printed books in vernacular languages not only spread knowledge but also formed and affirmed a shared sense of national identity.
Some commentators argue the printing press was the most important invention of the second millennium and it ushered in the modern age. The history-making significance of this dramatic shift from ‘manuscript culture’ to ‘print culture’ cannot be exaggerated.
But having described the cultural significance of the printed text, in this blog I want to ask a contrasting question. I want to make a comparison between printing and painting, between written text and visual images. What is it that great paintings can do for the ‘viewer’ that printed text can never do for the ‘reader’?
Recently I’ve discovered the works of Spanish romantic painter Francisco de Goya (1746 – 1828). His etchings and paintings have really impacted me, especially The Disasters of War.
Goya was deeply affected and traumatised by the Napoleonic wars and wanted to leave behind a visual record of what he had witnessed, although he kept these etchings hidden from the public and they were only discovered after he died.
Goya’s paintings challenge the humanist tradition of the Renaissance man embodying transcendent nobility and beauty, and instead give us a window into the perverse and despicable state of the human condition.
His stark images had a way of exposing the pretence and deception of the church of his time that was unwilling to acknowledge what was happening in society. I can mention the names of many other painters whose work has also impacted me.
I believe great painters can be prophets of God sent to reveal hope and judgement. As Christians we need to hear and see what they have to show us through their works of art.
This is especially true as modes of communication shift from ‘print culture’ to ‘internet culture’, and we now live under the tyranny of videos.
We are processing information visually while caught-up in a barrage of news headlines, and most images end up in some digital junkyard.
And yet, despite all this, there is no replacement to the discipline of reading a good book and/or going through deep soul-searching while looking at a painted masterpiece.
Therefore, from a Christian perspective, the choice is not either images or text, as if one has to be superior to the other, but the need to reimagine a complementary relationship between the two.
Both text and images can reveal and distort truth in different ways. Not all paintings of Biblical imageries necessarily communicate something good and beautiful. Some of them can be rubbish.
Similarly, the words of the Bible are impotent if the heart is corrupt and turned away from God. Scholars like Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor of the Hebrew Bible at Exeter University, who claims to be an atheist yet has spent her life studying the text of the Bible, only to reject what it has to say.
Of course the Bible has a canonical status and no painting can be treated on a par with the Bible. But my concern is that Protestant Christians have sought to affirm God’s truth revealed to us in the written text of the Bible at the expense of other modes and means that God has used to reveal his truth, goodness and beauty to us.
A false commitment to objective knowledge as revealed in the written text of the Bible can lead to the sin of bibliolatry, meaning we turn the Bible into an idol.
To readdress this imbalance we must learn to appreciate art and artists in general and give paintings a more prominent role and place in the life of Christian communities.
The work that Professor Ben Quash of King’s College is doing through the visual theology project is one example of what I am describing.
Sometimes the painted image is the one of the ways to know and understand what the printed text has to say to us.
Philip S. Powell manages the Learning Community of the Jubilee Centre.
This article first appeared on the Jubilee Centre website and was republished with permission.