Reclaiming Visual Ministry

At one time all art was Spirit-led. The Greek theatre, shamanic ritual objects, liturgical music, icons, and Giotto’s frescos all had a spiritual basis.

As a practitioner of traditional Byzantine Russian iconography for many years, I became immersed in a tradition in which Eidos, the Greek word meaning "image," "form," or "shape" has a central role. Though the arts in the Western world owe their status in large measure to the support of the Christian Church over the centuries, it is the tradition of Logos—the Word—that has predominated in the West. Only in the Eastern Church does the Image have full and equal status to the Word. This is evidenced in the way icons and Scripture figure equally in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy.

Following in the Western tradition, Quakerism embraced Logos, and thus the Word and vocal ministry, while distancing itself radically from Eidos, the natural and neglected counterpart of Logos. "Pluck down your Images, your Likeness, your Pictures, and your Representation of Things in Heaven . . . that none of you be found imitators of his Creator." (A Hammer to break down all Invented Images in G. Fox, Gospel-Truth Demonstrated). George Fox’s attitude towards the Image is similar to the Jewish and Muslim proscriptions of image-making: Only the Creator should make forms. Yet what’s to be done with our identity as being in the image and likeness of God (and therefore also makers of forms)?

Before addressing the latter, it is important to understand the context in which this uncompromising position regarding the image emerged, according to the Association of Art Historians—the 17th-century English city with its emphasis on material goods, consumption, and profit, where all objects and things of display increasingly competed for Friends’ attention.

Fox and later William Penn had a healthy and justified appreciation for the power of images; William Penn wrote, "Visual objects have a great influence on the people." Their suspicion of things visual was grounded in their understanding of the need for singleness of the eye.

Early Friends’ quest for utter singleness was not unlike the scientists of the Enlightenment who did away with all religion, "superstition," and unfounded claims about the world in order to make a pure inquiry into the nature of things. Often, new methods of inquiry that have Truth as their goal seem to require scrubbing everything that would weaken or hinder the attainment of that goal.

It is interesting, however, that even the Orthodox Church, a great proponent of the Image, has its own proscriptions. In my practice, what I at first found fascinating and nurturing in icon painting soon began to weigh heavily on me; to the Orthodox mind, all Western art is decadent. In this case, the icons are seen as the pinnacle of expression and the ancients who developed them are considered the sole purveyors of wisdom. This went straight to my heart as an artist. I began to agonize whether the modern human, the contemporary artist, and myself in particular, could contribute anything positive, any form of wisdom, to the human condition. (At this point, I had not yet come among Friends who believe in continuing revelation).

Yet somehow I knew in my heart the answer was yes. Around that time I met Dr. Ewert Cousins, one of the world’s foremost scholars in world religions. I asked him whether he thought the contemporary artist had the capacity to produce forms that were healing. He offered me his understanding that the spontaneous artistic creativity tradition has been articulated in both theology and mysticism. It is based on the inner divine life as a Trinitarian process, of intimate love and creative self-expression: "The Son is seen as the Art of the Father, the Image, the Masterpiece of the fountain-fullness of divine creativity. In the mystical tradition the Son is perceived as Light from Light, the perfect expression of the divine fecundity. It is out of this boundless inner creativity that the creation of the world flows. As a finite image of the Trinity, the human artist shares in this divine capacity for creative self-expression. By plumbing the depths where she or he mirrors the Trinitarian creativity, the artist can co-create with God, bringing to birth a truly sacred art."

This made clear for me that true visual ministry is possible.

My own artwork has been an expression of my abiding search for meaning, belonging, and wholeness, and the unity that I perceive and experience in the spiritual, human and natural world. In the end, vocal and visual ministry go hand in hand, and are twin reflections of the same one reality. As we search for new ways to bear witness to the Spirit in today’s spirit-hungry world, it is time the Image were accepted back into the fold, to enrich and inspire the community and be allowed to take its rightful place alongside the written and spoken word.

Angela Manno

Angela Manno, an attender of Fifteenth Street Meeting in New York, N.Y., is a member of Friends in Unity with Nature in Manhattan and a recent graduate of the School of the Spirit Ministry On Being a Spiritual Nurturer.