Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Door to the Spiritual: The Visual Arts in Anabaptist-Mennonite Worship

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Door to the Spiritual: The Visual Arts in Anabaptist-Mennonite Worship

Article excerpt

Abstract: The Anabaptist-Mennonite attitude toward the visual arts in worship settings has historically been iconoclastic. But since the middle of the twentieth century Mennonite artists have sensitized congregations toward an increasing embrace of the visual arts as a means of making spiritual truths manifest. The work of Sylvia Gross Bubalo presents one case study of a Mennonite artist's imaging of the church community, as these images visualize essential aspects of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology. The essay then discusses the role of the visual arts in Mennonite meetinghouses and churches, focusing on contemporary examples from the Americas and Russia. At the end of the twentieth century the spectrum of visual arts in Anabaptist-Mennonite worship spaces reflects the historic tension between the plain and the fancy--between art that is made and received in the quest for meaning and art as a magic-affecting icon or as decoration that reflects an accommodation to mainstream, dominant cultural forms.

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"This is my aim: for the work to be a window or door to the spiritual and not an end itself." (1) Thus Sylvia Gross Bubalo explains the purpose of her work as a Mennonite artist. Other contemporary Mennonite artists who create in dialogue with and for their congregations have expressed a similar understanding of the role of visual art within the church; and this is also how most recipients experience the works. Max Weber's distinction between art that functions as icon (where form itself becomes significant and acts "as a carrier of magical effect") and art in the context of what he terms "the religious ethic of brotherliness" (where the believers' relation to and use of art is focused in art's meaning and not in its form as such), is also applicable to this discussion of the role of the visual arts in the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith context.

When, in 1949, Orlando Schmidt entitled his thesis for the Biblical Seminary in New York "The Use of the Fine Arts in the Mennonite Church," he was implying by the term "use," that the arts are necessary as a tool in order to keep the free, non-liturgical services alive spiritually. (2) He advocated music, architecture, graphic arts and literature, but did not include sculpture and dance because he argued that these latter forms of artistic expression had no direct applicability to the Mennonite church. (3) As it happened, less than thirty years after Schmidt's thesis, both liturgical dance and sculptures were indeed "used" as worship focal points in a number of Mennonite meeting places and churches across the country, including regional, national and world conferences.

In this exploration of a Mennonite artist's imaging of the church community and the role of the visual arts in Mennonite meeting houses and churches, I will focus on contemporary examples in the United States, in the southern Ural region of the former Soviet Union and in Brazil and Paraguay, with occasional historical references serving as corrective perspectives. Discussion and comparison of these works will demonstrate a spectrum of visual arts in Anabaptist-Mennonite worship spaces that reflects the historic tension between the plain and the fancy, the simple and embellished, between art that is made and received in the quest for meaning--spiritual truth--and art as a magically powerful icon.

IMAGES OF THE ANABAPTIST-MENNONITE CONGREGATION

Anabaptist-Mennonite theology has always emphasized the centrality of the community of believers or the congregation. Sylvia Gross Bubalo, born in Pennsylvania in 1927, has created several visual images of the congregation. They are discernable as Mennonite, both in its hierarchical--Mennonite church--as well as in its ideal and egalitarian--believer's community-manifestations: The Congregation (1959) [Fig. 1], The Upper Room (1969) [Fig. 2], The People Waiting (1970), The Congregation: A Triptych (1983) [Fig. 3], Two or Three Gathered (1987) [Fig. …

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