ArtsReformation.com - Reformation of the Arts and Music

Home
The Lost Art of Patronage
© 1992 by Charles Erlandson

A history of art patronage, including the building of the great cathedrals. The word patron, in Latin, means Father; hence, a patron of the Arts is one who "begets" and protects the Arts.

Behold the penurious artist, too poor to rent more than an attic in a middle class household, itself fallen upon hard times, and clothed in oily rags that might be better suited to wipe paint spills than to be worn. Each night he wrestles with his old companion, the internal argument over which means of self- immolation is most aesthetically pleasing. Each night he splatters his soul over another canvas for what may be the very last time. After all, there is only so much rejection one man can sustain.

Unexpectedly, he hears from an acquaintance of a friend that someone has taken an interest in his art and might be persuaded to lend monetary support to his high and holy calling which has seemed to him like the prophetic mission of a Jeremiah. Such notes of hope have been blown before, only to echo silently into the blinded night. But this time the patron, his salvation, is in earnest, and the man buys from him only the second painting he has sold in the last three years. Suddenly, he finds himself with a modest audience, and in the years to come he is enabled to devote himself exclusively and with a religious fervor to his holy calling.

He is saved, all because of his deliverer-patron.

So the story goes.

Whenever I hear the word 'patron' my subconscious plays for me a short tape of a scenario similar to the one just described. I don't know where I learned the story, but I'm sure that somewhere in the motlied history of art a story like that may be found.

One thing I'm certain of, and that is that it has never been the norm.

Nevertheless, the concept of the patron in the arts is crucial to an understanding of the arts. More than this, we as Christians must understand our calling to patronize the arts if we are ever to reclaim the domain of the arts for Christ and His kingdom.

The concept of the patron which is still with us originated in the times of Rome and designated a Roman citizen who was a protector (the patronus) of a foreigner who had settled in Roman territory (the cliens). The relationship between the patron and his client (clientala) was an especially close one and involved many of the terms found in feudal contracts between lords and vassals. This Roman concept of the patron was extended into the medieval and Renaissance times, during which artists were afforded protection and sponsorship by various nobles and merchant princes.

In contemporary society the word 'patron' has lost some of its original connotation. Today we usually reserve the term for one who is specifically a "patron of the arts". Certainly, the closeness of the original relationship between a patron and his client is no longer implied in the term.

To better understand how a patron might or should function in our contemporary world, I would like to sketch a brief history of patronage through the ages and then examine how we might be able to interpret the role to the patron in the past to our present. But before I turn to my sketch pad, allow me to offer a brief apology for the necessity of the patron.

We must begin with a clear motivation for patronizing the arts. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to assay the reasons for the necessity and purposes of art, let me at least say that art is an inevitable part of what man does. Being created in the image of God and with the capacity for imagination and thought, man will have his art. You can be sure that the most primitive and wretched of all human societies is a culture which has surrounded itself with artistic objects (though what they mean by art and use it for may differ). It is therefore not a question of "Shall we have art or not" but a question of "Which art should we support?"

Secondly, we must recognize that art is always religious in nature. This should in no way be considered a shocking or exaggerated claim, since it is clear that all of life is inherently religious. Men may or may not acknowledge their religious nature, just as they may or may not acknowledge their Creator, and the art they produce may or may not be consistent with their religious beliefs. Nevertheless, all art is religious. Whether we are considering a Shakespeare play, a Seurat painting, or a Cage non-composition, all art reflects a certain worldview, which is to say a certain religion. This means that art is not neutral. Something is being asserted about God and the world He has made, and that something measures up to varying degrees to what God Himself has revealed to us.

Therefore, we have a clear motive for care in selecting the art with which to adorn our environments. We must never permit ourselves to be lulled to sleep by our contemporary ease of procuring art or by the surfeit of goods which has been spread before us. Every artistic choice we make (and we make many during a typical day) is a vote for a particular piece of art, and that vote has consequences as real and effective as the political votes we cast.

This, then, is our motive in patronizing the arts: art and the making of artistic choices are inescapable. The question remains: will we be found to be faithful stewards of what God has given us? The Scriptures do not allow us to take this responsibility lightly, for Whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things (and by extension "participate in and promote these things"). A choice to watch The Last Temptation of Christ is a choice not to watch Babette's Feast or The Navigator. Obviously, I am not saying that no one who watches one cannot or will not ever watch the other. What I am saying is that any choice at a given moment always displaces all of the other choices that could be made. At any one time you cannot vote both Republican and Democrat, nor can you serve both God and Satan simultaneously.

When I speak of patronage of art, I am not speaking necessarily of Art or the fine arts. Sometimes the term 'art' is reserved for the art of painting, and sometimes it also includes all of the fine arts. But art is never limited to these. Look around you - you will be surprised at the amount of art twentieth century man has surrounded himself with, much of it unconsciously.

Finally, our motivation in patronizing the arts should be to encourage those whose calling before the Lord is in the arts. We are exhorted in Galatians 6:2 to "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." Being an artist in a culture which has turned from God and in a ghetto-ish community which is sometimes slow to comprehend or appreciate the arts is a calling in much need of support. We have much to learn from the artists in our midst, just as we have much to learn from those who are scientists, businessmen, or housewives. Artists are a vital part of the body of Christ, perhaps akin to our eyes. Without them our sight begins to fail.

A Brief History of Patronage

Any student of history, broadly speaking, is well-equipped to grasp immediately the history of patronage. The history of patronage follows the history of culture, including its theo- politico- econo- socio- psycho-history. (Is one allowed that many O's?) Where monarchs have been ascendant, monarchial patronage has also reached its summit. When the church has extended its kingdom, then ecclesiastical patronage has flourished with it. And wherever the middle class and common man have come into their own, then middle class and common patronage has become ubiquitous. The following sketch of patronage through the ages is not meant to be complete or definitive but only suggestive.

Let me begin by briefly mentioning a kind of patronage of the arts we see in the Bible. Here we find a kind of divine patronage, wherein God Himself commissions the Israelites to create certain forms of art. God is, of course, the Great Artist, and yet upon occasion He has also taken on the role of patron. In Exodus 25-30 we find God commissioning the creation of the tabernacle and all of the elements within it. He gives his people very precise instructions concerning the construction of the tabernacle, and these instructions are given in the context of the giving of the Law. The writer of Hebrews assures us that the reason for such precise instructions from the mouth of God Himself is that the tabernacle was a model of things which are in heaven. Furthermore, in Exodus 31 we learn that God specially chose two leaders from the artistic community, Bezalel and Oholiab, who not only were filled with the Spirit but also with all sorts of skills and knowledge. Of course, immediately thereafter the Israelites decided to make the unauthorized object of art known as the Golden Calf.

King Saul was another patron of the arts who commissioned certain songs from the lyre of David, and we know that David himself was a poet and songwriter of unparalleled dimensions. Presumably, he became a patron of the arts during his long reign as king.

We do not, however, find an extensive system of art patronage during Old Testament times. It is not until the coming of Christ and the establishment of His glorious and eternal kingdom that the arts and their patrons begin to manifest the glory of that kingdom. As we might suspect, there is not a great deal of Christian art during the first few centuries of the New Covenant. But we should not be misled into thinking that there was none. Naturally, the difficult circumstances the early Christians found themselves in made it improbable that they would be capable of a highly developed system of art or patronage. In fact, though, a distinctively Christian art did begin to emerge from the debris of the Roman empire. Early Christian painting, for example, was clearly based on Roman models, and yet it was not long before it began to emerge as something very distinct from a 'degenerative' art based on Rome.

Patronage in the early church developed fairly early, as soon as it became possible for Christians to accumulate wealth and positions of status. Pierre du Bourguet concludes that "for the Christian faith to have penetrated as it did the social circles in which Constantine moved at the end of the third century, it is evident that the Imperial court must have included a certain number of Christians throughout the period preceding the Peace of the Church and even while the persecutions were raging" (Pierre du Bourguet, Early Christian Painting, New York: Viking, 1965, p. 47). The first form of patronage in the early church probably involved the use of private houses in worship, houses which it was necessary to decorate in ways appropriate to worship. The arts involved in such decoration would include not only painting but primarily architecture. As the place of worship for Christians evolved from 'ecclesial houses' to mansions to basilicas, the amount of patronage involved necessarily increased, and other art forms such as mosaic began to be incorporated.

After Christianity had found an imperial sponsor in Constantine, the church became an even greater sponsor of the arts, including ways not necessarily tied directly to corporate worship. Funds from the imperial treasury were now available to the church to patronize Christian art, and the decorative arts in general and more specifically painting were supported, as were the best artists.

What we never find in the patronage of the early church is an art for art's sake mentality. Actually, "art for art's sake" is a peculiar interpretation of art developed in the nineteenth century, and I suppose what I really mean is a notion of art as an entity which is capable of standing on its own, divorced from its explicitly religious context. The early church is not alone in this idea; every culture that has existed, with the notable exceptions of Greco-Roman civilization and its modern, secular heir (which in this sense would have to be dated from the Renaissance) has understood art as primarily a means of worship. It is a relatively recent idea that art is something completely different and separable from worship and even religion in general. Donald Jay Grout states that "The basic proposition in the philosophy of the church Fathers was that music is the servant of religion. Only that music is good which, without obtruding its own charms, opens the mind to Christian teachings and disposes the soul to holy thoughts. Music without words cannot do this; hence instrumental music was excluded from public worship, though the faithful were allowed to use a lyre to accompany the singing of hymns and psalms in their homes and on informal occasions" (Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music, New York: Norton, 1960, p. 31).

The theater was eschewed on even more serious grounds, for it carried connotations of a decidedly pagan nature, the same paganism from which most of the early church had recently converted. Any art which was enjoyed merely for its own sake was immediately suspect because of the necessarily pagan associations it had for the early church. It is not at all strange that the church should have taken what to us appears such a philistine attitude toward art. Augustine himself expresses a tension within him between the desire to acknowledge the "great utility of singing" on the one hand and its "dangerous pleasure" on the other (Confessions, X, Ch. 33). Even today, when Christians are converted, it is sometimes necessary for them to proclaim a personal fast from certain art forms which have been associated with a pagan past. At some later date the Christian is then able to reclaim what has been fasted from and feast upon it. Christianity is a religion which proceeds from the fast to the feast.

I have already briefly alluded to the nature of early church patronage concerning the pictorial and architectural arts, which were originally derivative of Roman models and used in relation to formal worship. But it is really the twin arts of poetry and music to which the early church devoted herself, although even here we do not find the kind of patronage which would develop later. There was much poetry and music written during the period of the early church, but it is not poetry as a separate entity as we think of it today. Rather, the poetry and music of the period are to be found in the hymns of the church. Like all of the arts employed by the early Christians, poetry and music were not conceived of as devices in their own right but as things to be used as a means of direct worship. Many of the early hymns were not even wholly original creations but commentaries on Scripture, particularly in the East. The hymns of Ambrose and others can be seen as testimonies against Arianism and in favor of orthodoxy, and music was seen, as I have shown earlier, as strictly in the employment of religion. It is interesting to observe that, according to Schaff, "The council of Laodicea, about A.D. 360, prohibited even the ecclesiastical use of all uninspired or 'private hymns', and the council of Chalcedon, in 451, confirmed this decree" (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 7 vols., 3rd ed. New York: Scribner's, 1884, p. 579). We find as well that nearly all of the composers of these hymns were clergymen and many of them eminent theologians. Under these circumstances it appears as if little of what we would think of as patronage today took place, except from the increasingly central authority of Rome which unified the relatively independent practices of the local churches.

However, with the ascension of Rome to a position of clear central authority, the church's patronage of the arts increased. As the head of pagan Rome was crushed under the foot of the church it became possible for the church to redeem some of what it had previously rejected. In order to abbreviate my historical discussion, I will be taking Gregory the Great and the Medici family as examples of patronage during the time of the church from the sixth through fifteenth centuries. Finally, I will devote a separate section to the building of those living stones of theology we find in the cathedrals.

It must be stated at the outset that Gregory the Great's contribution to music has been greatly exaggerated. His role in the growth of papal power and the authority of the church and his zeal for converting the heathen nations, as evidenced by his sponsorship of, for example, Augustine, must be acknowledged. Some of the changes in music ascribed to Gregory were begun before he was even born and some occurred after he had died, and it is not likely that he actually composed much of the music we associate with his name. It is also true that much of the revision of the liturgy that took place in the fifth through seventh centuries must be credited to the Benedictine monks. In fact, monks in general must be considered among the most important patrons of the arts, in light of their contributions in music and their preservation of literature and other documents relating to the arts. In addition, the Schola Cantorum, a training school for church musicians sometimes credited to Gregory, had already been established before Gregory was elected pope.

Nevertheless, it is beyond dispute that Gregory was an important patron of music. According to Grout, Gregory "recodified the liturgy and reorganized the Schola Cantorum. He caused a collection of chants to be compiled from those already in use, retaining as many as were serviceable, revising where necessary; he assigned particular chants to the various services throughout the year in an order that remained essentially untouched until the sixteenth century; in short, he brought all the music of the Western church for the first time into a systematic and well-proportioned whole" (Grout, History of Western Music, p. 29).

Without attempting an analysis of the costs and benefits of the Renaissance, it is important to note that a very different kind of patronage began to emerge with the rise of the Italian city-states and the new wealth gained by nobles and merchants. In summary, to be rich in Milan, Venice, Florence, Naples or the Papal States was to be a patron of the arts. Unfortunately, this new wealth and patronage often resulted in an ostentatious display of wealth and power designed to reflect a new, humanistic conception of the prince. With the Renaissance there was also a return to a more classical notion of art as something distinct and set apart from religion. In some ways, art became a kind of new religion, and the artist began to emerge as a kind of hero or prophet. This new form of patronage, with its emphasis on calling attention to the patron and its idea of art being worthy in and of itself of contemplation, bears the distinct marks of the modern conception of the arts and patronage. An interesting example of the new prominence of the patron is the number of patrons who appear in paintings of the Renaissance and after, not only in portraits but peering into a scene or even thrust into Biblical scenery!

Most noteworthy among Renaissance patrons are the Medici family, particularly Cosimo (1389-1464), known as the "Father of His Country", and his grandson Lorenzo (1449-1492), known as Lorenzo the Magnificent. Although Cosimo did not actually hold political office, he controlled political appointments in Florence, and he used his wealth and position to encourage literature and the fine arts. He built churches, villas, the Medici Library, and aided Greek scholars who were fleeing Constantinople in 1453. Donatello, Fra Angelico, and many others were among the artists he supported with his generous gifts. Over a period of 37 years he spent a sum equivalent to 10 million dollars, much of which went to the church.

Lorenzo's influence on the arts was equally as great. He himself was a poet and man of letters, and he took a personal interest in the lives of his artist friends, as had his grandfather. Among the artists patronized by Lorenzo were Botticelli, Fra Filippo Lippi and others, and he was a friend as well of the young Michelangelo. Under his rule, which has been alternatively seen as tyrannical and capricious by some and liberal and full of great judgment by others, Florence became known as a worldwide center of culture. Other members of the Medici family who were great patrons of the arts include Giuliano (1479-1516), Ippolito (1511-1535), Cosimo I (1519-1574), and Cosimo II (1590-1621), who was a patron of Galileo.

In the period after the Renaissance, we begin to see the development of the middle class. Already, the merchant class had emerged and, as in the case of the princes in Italian Renaissance, become patrons of the arts. New markets in all kinds of arts developed with the emergence of the middle class. In response to this new class and their new markets, new forms of art developed. In painting we see the influence of the middle class, especially in Holland where an entire new group of patrons arose. This new group of more common patrons influenced the creation of new genres in painting. An excellent example of this new emphasis on more common themes is the work of Pieter Brueghel. Music also began to be cultivated by the middle class as well. In Germany, land of Luther, the collegium musicum, a society of citizens who met to play and sing for their own pleasure, was formed in many towns. In literature the development of the novel reflected a particularly middle class mentality and outlook.

With the increased concern for the individual and his rights a new class of artists began to emerge as well. Beethoven, who wrote for no particular patron but for himself and an idealized and universal audience, serves as an excellent example.

Patronage in the twentieth century has taken an ironic twist, if we limit patronage to a more formal kind of definition, for in this great age of the individual, power appears to be concentrated in the hands of a few. (As we have seen, in one sense patronage involves every act of every individual who chooses to participate in art). One center of power is the state-supported university which cranks out artists and art majors with remarkably similar and limited styles. Often, there is little training in the fundamentals of drawing. Creative writing programs churn out writers who feel that a dreary cataloguing of brand names or references to contemporary culture or lack of discernible plot suggest profundity. Another major patron is the Museum, which, as Robert Hughes recognized "has replaced the Church as the main focus of civic pride in American cities" (Robert Hughes, Shock of the New, 2nd ed.; New York: Knopf, 1991, p. 366). There is an almost religious and messianic character to such museums as the Museum of Modern Art in their favor to promote certain kinds of art.

Cathedrals

The most holistic, magnificent, and extensive example of patronage in history is undoubtedly the building of cathedrals. Nowhere else in the history of mankind do you have so many arts integrated with each other into one supreme and spiritual vision. Many excellent things have been said about the grandeur and spirit of the great cathedrals, even by pagans. It is as if the glory of the buildings inspires man to his greatest desires, thoughts, and expression nearly a millennium after their erection. Consider, for example, the words of William Anderson regarding the place of cathedrals in history:

"Before science could achieve such command over the resources of nature, it was necessary that the imaginations of men in relation to nature should be enlarged by the construction of huge permanent reminders of their actual and potential power over matter."

This new power over matter shows further how Christianity freed the men and women of Western Europe from being slaves of their environment and the puppets of the gods and spirits of forest, river, field, and sky. The building of the great cathedrals was an act of liberation from the forest-bound mentality of Northern Man, transforming the prison of the woods into temples of stone trees. That the iconography of the cathedrals, from the west front of Chartres to that of Rheims, reveals an ever-increasing emphasis on the Doctrine of the Incarnation has been interpreted as showing the desire of the clergy to defend that doctrine against the attacks of heretics such as the Albigenses, who slighted or disbelieved it. It has, however, a deeper significance in terms of our subject: as God became Man in Christ so He sanctified all the elements of which men and women are made and, as Christ in death descended into Hell, He changed the stony bowels of the Earth from being the fastness of the damned to the very material from which the art of His praise should be fashioned in the great Gothic cathedrals and churches (William Anderson, The Rise of the Gothic, Salem, New Hampshire: Salem House, 1985, p. 57).

Naturally, something so enormous, so grand, and so glorious as the cathedrals of the late Middle Ages does not sprout fully formed from the mind of one man or even one generation. Instead, we must let them stand as a testimony to the theology of an entire epoch in history. Once again, we find ourselves indebted to the labors of the monks, whose buildings may be considered the precursors of the great cathedrals. This is especially true of the monastery at Cluny where the abbots and monks thought on a grander scale than elsewhere. While some continued to struggle with the concept of apostolic poverty, this was definitely not true of the monks at Cluny in Burgundy, who surrounded themselves with beautiful worship and objects of worship and also began to accumulate wealth. Such beautiful worship, of course, needed to be conducted in a building just as beautiful. The third abbey church built there was to become the largest church built until the reconstruction of St. Peter's, and it was this church that set the model for Gothic architects and where the artists who founded the school of Burgundian Romanesque were brought together.

In similar fashion, it was in a monastery, the one at St. Denis in France under Abbot Suger's vision, that we witness the culmination of the conceptions of theology and architecture which were to be incarnated most gloriously in the Gothic cathedrals. In Suger we see clearly the effect of one man's vision and determination of the arts and all they touch and transform. Suger had great aesthetic acumen, was a passionate collector, and had a taste for fine things such as precious metals and gems, vestments, architecture, and stained glass (his architectural theology began with the idea that "God is light.") He saw not only the need to create a beautiful house of worship ("Everything that is most precious should be used to celebrate the Holy Mass") but as a form of theology published in the form of architecture. (Sadly, his theology was somewhat misguided.) He wished for St. Denis that it would tower above all other churches and incorporate all of the aesthetic innovations he had come to understand. To this end, Suger devoted the wealth of his monastery, and his vision, which was the Gothic vision of high vault, glass walls, and a church full of light, came to dominate cathedral building over the next few centuries.

Suger's vision served as the model for the great age of cathedrals, when bishops (cathedral=bishop's chair) began to exert the influence of their power and wealth over church architecture. Not every motive of the bishops was pure. Often, the cathedral was built to exalt the prelate's power. Sometimes the money was extracted through admittedly burdensome taxation, but it was also true that many a bishop willingly devoted funds to the building of the cathedral he might truly have desired for some other purpose. There was also an unmistakable desire to see the glory of God and the beauty of His truth embodied in the cathedrals. But the vision was not the vision of the bishops alone: kings, nobles, merchants, craftsmen, and peasants alike contributed to the vision. The kings, nobles, and merchants, ever mindful of their eternal standing before God, were concerned that their God-given wealth be used for His purposes. Sometimes, as well, there was still guilt associated with the wealth accumulated by the merchants, who might then give out of fear or guilt.

The many guilds and craftsmen who were represented in the great work of a cathedral were often also great patrons. When necessary, they would devote not only their paid labor but additional labor or an entire stained glass window as a gift. The peasant themselves, far from feeling a Marxist alienation, eagerly embraced the universal vision of the cathedral. Naturally, this does not mean that there was never any resentment on the part of the townspeople if, for example, the bishop was extracting an exorbitant amount. But for the most part, they identified so completely with the cathedral that in many cases the cathedral became the symbol of the town itself, and all took great pride in its existence. In fact, the building of the south tower of Chartres cathedral "provoked an outburst of popular enthusiasm known as the 'cult of the carts'. The Archbishop of Rouen wrote to the Bishop of Amiens in about 1145 that Chartres men in their humility were yoking themselves to the carts carrying materials for its building and that miracles were reported associated with their devotion" (Anderson, p. 36). A measure of the dedication of the people of this time may be found in a statistic related to France during the Capetian monarchy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. During this period an average of one-third of the resources of France each year were devoted to the building of churches, which included eighty cathedrals, five hundred large churches, and thousands of parish churches.

The cathedral elevated everything it touched - and it seemed to encompass every sphere of the medieval universe. Anderson states that the cathedrals "set the style for all great secular buildings.... [T]he effect of the gothic style spread from the spiritual heights downward. It changed and made more beautiful the halls and castles of kings and barons, granting a fuller expression to civic pride...."(Anderson, p. 65). The stones themselves, formed into the shape of a giant cross which could also be seen as the form of the human body, taught theology, as did the stone statuary. The stained glass lit the interior with their stories so that even the illiterate were sure to be taught. The process of erecting a cathedral united and inspired the people as surely as the completed building itself, and there was a communion of the saints connected by several centuries of labor in some cases. The most glorious liturgy was now matched by a place of worship just as glorious - if not more.

The cathedral quickly became the center of the medieval universe. Not only was it the center of worship (private prayers took place there as well as corporate worship), but it became the center for the very guilds which had helped build it. These guilds took such pride in their creation that they continued to seek out the best and most beautiful for their own cathedral. The act of erecting a cathedral required a great many men and crafts, all working in harmony toward a single vision. Architects, masons, sculptors, workers in stained glass, goldsmiths and silversmiths, artists in such diverse media as stone, wood, ceramics, glass, and metal all came together, sometimes over a period of two centuries or more, to contribute their talents to one universal work of art. Such a grand endeavor naturally stimulated the work of the artist and craftsman. Elaborate choir stalls, for example, were erected, and the cathedral acted as a stimulant in the system of music at the time. During the time when cathedral architecture evolved from the Romanesque to the Gothic in the twelfth century, music began to change from the monodic plainsong of the monasteries to polyphonic music. Leonin and Perotin, the first known practitioners of polyphony, were the choir masters and organists at Notre Dame.

The cathedral also acted as a goad to those in the applied arts who were forced to grapple with many technological and scientific problems in route to completing a cathedral. Lay groups also used the cathedral for their purposes, and businessmen looked upon it as theirs to embellish with their gifts. According to Duby, "In the twelfth century the cathedrals of the Capetian realm were schools, in fact the only living schools" (Georges Duby, The Age of the Cathedrals, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981, p. 112). Cathedrals, and not monasteries, became the centers of education. In addition, the cathedrals helped extend and stimulate trade, the flow of knowledge and ideas, and travel, as people were drawn to the cathedral as visitors or pilgrims or to settle and be near the very heart and soul of medieval society.

Anderson, who has written so well of the power and glory of the Gothic cathedrals, has summarized the kind of patronage represented by the great cathedral builders of the Middle Ages: They were patrons in a sense that is hardly known today. We do not now have patrons who are concerned to direct our souls to salvation in the afterlife through the right practice and execution of art. We have directors of galleries of modern art who want to educate us to an awareness of what is vital or fashionable in art today. We have art-dealers whose living depends on their responses to the desires of private and public patrons. We have many artists and sculptors, often moved and inspired by the deepest religious convictions, but few even of these would claim that the power of their art could change the direction of men's lives today to the degree that was expected of art in the Middle Ages (Anderson, Rise of the Gothic, p. 45).

It is just such a view of the church, the arts, and patronage that must be reclaimed.

Possibilities for Patronage Today

But to limit patronage to these formal kinds of patronage is to become a slave to them and their tastes. I want to conclude by suggesting ways in which patronage can be comprehended and cultivated by Christians today.

1. Recognize the Calling of the Artist

The artist has a peculiar calling in culture which at its heart is no different than any other. For too long we have been influenced by Romantic notions of genius and the artist, but the genuine artist is not some alien in our midst and should not act like or be treated as such. Just as teachers, preachers, or evangelists contribute in their own unique way to the kingdom of God, so does the artist. Far from being afraid of the powers or influence of the artist or art, the church should be the first to promote these things. As Protestants, sometimes we are still in an inertial rebellion against all things Catholic. It is time for us to re-evaluate the role of the arts in the church and to study the Scriptures to see what they tell us about art, just as we might go to them for principles about education, economics, or government. The arts, like all other callings, have a dual role in the work of evangelism. They may be used as a means of presenting the gospel, contributing to the work of justification, or they may be used to edify the believer in the work of sanctification. A healthy Christian art is not only a part of the labor of the Great Commission: it will also make the more narrow work of 'witnessing' easier to do. In fact, it is not only a good idea for Christians to become involved in the arts: it is a moral imperative for us to create the most excellent art possible.

2. Learn About Art

It is impossible for the arts to impact culture in a Christian way if Christians refuse to educate themselves about art. The first step, as mentioned above, is to understand the arts and their place in culture. We must not only applaud the glory of the accomplishment of art in the past but laud the grandeur of contemporary art, wherever it is present. Christians, above all people, should have an intimate and extensive knowledge of history, including art history. In fact, a knowledge of any branch of history broadens and deepens the overall comprehension of history and other disciplines since all knowledge and history is interrelated. We must also be alert to the art which surrounds us on a daily basis, understanding that the art found in museums and galleries is only a minute fraction of all art and that there are much more influential forms right in front of our noses.

3. Encourage Artists and Sponsor Artists

Those who know of Christians involved in the arts are now in a position to support those artists in a special way. For some, this may mean financial support. Some of the arts are less expensive to the artist. For example, the painter will spend more on his art than the writer, and the filmmaker will spend more than almost any other artist (in fact, if there is one art today that most approaches the cathedral in terms of cost, number of arts involved, and influence in society, it is film.) But even the writer is always sacrificing time and energy and other things to his calling. Of equal or greater importance than financial support is the act of encouragement. The act of creation is always an uncertain one, and it is very easy for those with artistic gifts to become discouraged. As a writer, I know I have often found it difficult to dedicate myself to my calling the way I should because I sometimes feel I am the only one around who cares about this sort of thing. Some artists are starving for someone with whom they can intelligently and passionately discuss their work, and they often make the most interesting of friends. There is every reason to identify and encourage the work of the artist.

I recently came across an excellent example of how it is possible to both encourage and sponsor artists. In a March or April issue of Parade magazine, a sectional supplement found in many Sunday newspapers, there was a story about a couple who had spent twenty years of their lives patronizing the arts, in particular the art of painting. Though their tastes ran to minimal and conceptualist art, what they had done with their lives was quite remarkable and may be taken as instructive for us. They lived in New York, which gave them access to a large number of artists in their immediate area. What they did was to spend a certain amount of time each week getting to know various artists and their art. Over the years they developed an ability to discriminate between the art they liked and that which they liked not so well, and when they saw something that met their standards, they bought it. Their modus operandi was to buy the work of artists whose work they admired but who had not yet made it into the pantheon of recognized artists. Consequently, the works they bought were still very reasonable. Through a process of steadily studying and buying, they eventually accumulated a collection of art which was recently appraised at several millions of dollars.

Now the point of the story is not that "Yes, you too can make big money collecting art!" (though there is nothing wrong in pursuing such an endeavor.) Rather, what we should notice is the devotion this couple had to art. They were not merely content to accept the standards which had been spoon-fed to them like pablum, and they willingly and readily participated in the lives of the artists and their art. As Christians, we should especially be aware of the blessings associated with being responsible stewards over a long period of time. What this couple has done could easily be replicated by anyone willing to make the effort, although there is obviously no guarantee that at the end of a twenty year period you will find yourself the possessor of a multi-million dollar collection.

Recently, I myself had the opportunity to participate in the first of what I hope will be a long life of serving as just such a patron. Though I live in Tyler, Texas, by no means a hot bed of artistic fervor, I was blessed enough to have access to a Christian artist with considerable talent. I am speaking of my brother, Paul Erlandson, who in the last few years has committed himself to his art. Sometimes it is not always easy to identify your calling before the Lord, regardless of how much fear and trembling it is pursued with. Not only did I buy a lithograph called Aviatrix which he had done; I also commissioned him to do a painting titled The School of the Prophets, intended to be used in conjunction with a musical project of the same name which we were pursuing. Recently, I held an 'unveiling' for this painting after it had returned from being framed. The purpose of the unveiling was not to say "Look everybody! See what my brother did! Isn't he good?" but to stimulate an interest in the painting itself and the arts in general. Perhaps one of the children at the church who saw the painting will be encouraged to also pursue one of the arts. If nothing else, for one evening a Christian artist and his art, as well as the cause of the arts, was placed within view of those willing to participate.

Becoming such a patron is not as expensive as one might expect. I have always made at most a modest salary, and yet I have always tried to devote a certain portion of my capital to supporting the art of my choice. It is not necessary to have a brother for an artist to find exceptionally good buys. What is of paramount difficulty is identifying Christian artists with sufficient vision and devotion to their work. The church in the twentieth century has not been a very good patron of the arts, and when it has, excellence has not usually been its signature.

4. Begin Acting Like a Patron

The real question with regard to the role of the Christian as patron is not "Should I become a patron?" but "Will I act as a responsible patron?" In our culture everyone has become a king, and each of us has a developed (although usually invisible) system of patronage. We have access today to more resources, more time, more capital, more kinds of art and more objects of art than anyone in the history of the world. In a very real sense, nearly everyone living in the United States in the latter part of the twentieth century is richer than Louis XIV or Charles V. The irony is that like the Israelites, we have forgotten the source of all our blessings, and these blessings have been turned into curses (for example, the violence, pornography, propaganda, and blasphemy in movies or on TV or the NEA-funded art). Equally bad, for all our surfeit of art, we don't take it very seriously, although this does not mean it is any less influential in our lives.

We are justly concerned that our tax dollars are used to fund blasphemous, idolatrous, pornographic, and shoddy and unprincipled art. But how are we ourselves doing with our own time and money? How many of us have children who support the blasphemies and atrocities seen in a typical Schwarzenegger movie? Recent surveys have shown just how little difference there is between what Christians and non-Christians watch. We cannot use the excuse that we have no choices. I am not even speaking of the ever-present choice of abstinence, though the early Christians wisely abstained from certain forms of art. There is no need to abstain completely from the film form of art when you can go down to any Hastings and rent, for 49 cents, any of a number of excellent movies which do not blaspheme God or denigrate His image in mankind. Forget about boycotts. Forget about censorship. (I am not saying there is not a place for such things.) If every Christian would exercise his moral responsibility to flee from all ungodliness (I Cor. 6:18; I Cor 10:14; I Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 2:22) and to think about whatever is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8) those God-haters who produce such ungodliness would not be able to stand against our economic power, let alone any other kind.

I fear that if we do not patronize Christian art, the practitioners of ungodliness will patronize us.

Last updated: 12 April 2006
Updated by: Matt Bynum