Sacred Space and Art in the Early Church

By Ashish Naidu Oct. 6, 2011 7:28 p.m. Church Life, Culture, Theology, Historical Theology

I was discussing the topics of Gnosticism and Monarchianism with my students in class recently and asked them a question: what do these two views have in common? The answer: a very divisive or bifurcated view of reality.

Both views are characterized by a dualism, which celebrates the spiritual realm but denigrates the physical realm. On the one hand, Gnosticism views the physical world as a cosmic accident, and consequently has a very low view of material reality. On the other hand, Monarchianism posits a sharp distinction between the eternal and temporal realms, and a corresponding division in God’s character: between who he is and how he has revealed himself to us.

I went ahead and asked the class another question: can you think of ways in which the church continues to struggle with dualism today? Interestingly, the discussion eventually led to the observation that there is a general lack of admiration for sacred space and art in the evangelical church culture with its lopsided emphasis on the spiritual.

As I was putting my thoughts together for this post few days ago, I made a serendipitous discovery that the recent edition of Biola magazine actually deals with this very theme!

Have you walked into an evangelical place of worship recently and seen inspiring architecture or art? Chances are, like me, you might have visited churches where the sanctuary doubled-up as a basketball court during the week. Now, I do not think that there is anything particularly wrong with this arrangement from a biblical or theological standpoint. Perhaps, due to pragmatic and or even valid reasons, a particular group of believers might have decided that this is the best way to make use of space available to them.

God’s presence is not circumscriptive but repletive, which means He is not restricted by space, He is present everywhere. Moreover, Jesus reminded the Samaritan woman that it is not the where (“this mountain or in Jerusalem”) but the how (“in spirit and truth”) of worship that is important (John 2:21ff). And Paul calls us the temple of God’s Spirit (I Cor 6: 19–20). In this sense, all space is sacred, we do not need to create a space and christen it as sacred in order to pray and worship—we can do that wherever we are.

I began to consider the Christian use of sacred space and art during my visit to Istanbul two summers ago, where I spent some time thinking about architecture and art in the early church while revising a biographical chapter for a forthcoming book on John Chrysostom’s Christology. I got to visit the Church of St. George, the official church ofthe Greek Patriarchate, where the present successor of Chrysostom—and the leader of all Eastern Orthodox churches—lives. The Patriarch’s secretary, with whom I had made a prior appointment, gave me a personal tour of the premises, and talked about the ministries of the two former celebrated bishops of the city once called Constantinople: Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom. I was mesmerized by the splendor of the church as we walked around, while people talked in hushed tones as they admired the architectural beauty of the high columned sanctuary, gazed at the ornate gilded iconostasis, and considered the delicate in-laid woodwork of the refurbished pulpit made from the remnants of the original one used by the golden-mouthed preacher (Chrysostom). A visit to such places definitely inspires awe, directing one’s attention to the glorious beauty of God.

The fathers of the church talked about God using tangible means, even matter itself, to communicate his grace and presence to us. And the key idea that undergirded this sacramental view of reality was the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. God who created matter entered the material world: the eternal Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. The divine and human natures, spirit and matter were united in our Lord. The tabernacle imagery of the incarnation inspired architecture and art in the early church. Therefore, sacred space and art functioned as theological statements and represented profound biblical truths in non-verbal ways.

I witnessed this in what is considered a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture: the Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom of God. The ambiance created by the golden haze of the interior decorated with precious stone and mosaic has an overwhelming effect on visitors. The sheer dazzling beauty of church with its magnificent play on space, light, and color provokes worship in the believer!  

As I stood in the sanctuary imagining how Chrysostom would have preached about the transforming power of the Gospel to crowds where the present edifice stands—for Justinian built the Hagia Sophia in place of the former episcopal church—I was reminded that even after more than a millennium, the beauty and awe inspiring nature of this sacred space has not diminished, but continues to direct one’s attention heavenward. Further, such was the profound influence of this prominent church in the Christian East, that it eventually became an architectural template for other religious edifices in the Ottoman Empire.                                                         

Sacred art like illuminated manuscripts had a pedagogic function in the early church. The fathers’ high view of the written Word led to the careful preservation and transmission of texts. Just as in the incarnation, where the glory of the Word is veiled in flesh, so in the Scripture the glory of Christ is veiled in the text. The reader was reminded that beauty of the text reflected the beauty of the Word made flesh. Insular Christian art has had a profound influence on calligraphy in the eastern and western world. For instance, the Lindisfarne Gospels are not only acknowledged as one of the most important manuscripts in the development of medieval art, but are also recognized as a crucial document in the history of Western Christianity. They are fine examples of monastic book illumination and contain the earliest surviving English translation of the gospels. Long after the legions abandoned Britain after the fall of Rome, the monasteries along the sea-battered and stormy coasts of Scotland (Iona), Ireland (Skellig Michael), and England (Lindisfarne) functioned as vital centers of Christian civilization. The scripts devised and the books produced in Lindisfarne and Iona at this period became the common form of writing during the Middle Ages.

Given this marvelous heritage, I have often wondered if the lack of interest in the external beauty of sacred space and décor, which characterizes much of our church culture today, is due to the struggle with dualism? Or is it due to the residual sense of over-correction that we have inherited from the Reformation movement? I suspect it may be both.

During the sixteenth century in an effort to bring the church back to its biblical foundations, the Reformers rightly took a firm stand against objects—representational or non-representational—in the sanctuary that became a source of distraction. The preaching of Word occupied center stage and anything that overshadowed the ministry from the pulpit was done away with. But, does this mean there is no room for good architecture and art in the church today? The Reformers were not against art or its use in the life of faith. Luther was open to the use of sacred art in the church as long at it was not distracting and Calvin spoke of art as a gift of God. Moreover, Calvin encouraged Huguenot refugees in Geneva to use their artful jewelry-making skills for God’s glory, which led to the emergence of the Swiss watch making industry. The Reformers thought of the glory of God as his manifested excellence, and viewed him as the supreme artist and builder who is Lord over all creation. The Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper captures this remarkable Reformation perspective with the following statement: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: “Mine!” Thus our aesthetic sense, and use of sacred space and art must reflect this truth.

I am not suggesting that we embark on a cathedral building enterprise or start to venerate icons, but I certainly think there is room for improvement in our biblical and theological understanding of God glorifying sacred space and art. I am thankful, however, that we have begun to turn the corner in the evangelical church with the help of gifted artists who are reconnecting Christian faith with fine art


  • James Hering Oct. 7, 2011 at 9:31 AM


    I wore a broad smile as I read your comments. wish I could have been there with you in Istanbul!

    There is growing interest in sacred space in the academic community; I have read two students' theses on the subject in the last few years. One neglected area, to my mind, is the influence of technology (including materials and structures) on sacred space. I think that these new possibilities, along with financial pressures, lead to the tail wagging the dog. Theological concerns take a back seat to the pragmatic needs of the congregation. I think only a (Christian) cultural renaissance can overcome the trend. All the best to you, brother, James

  • Greg Oct. 7, 2011 at 10:08 AM

    A wonderful piece and reflection !

    It reminded me immediately of the C. of Chalcedon & Eucharist (the latter, "the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.") Sacramental 'matter' really does place God in our midst !!

    It's helpful, as well, that you remind us of Chrysostom & how Christ is enfleshed for us in Eucharist (of which art and beauty are the loveliest of echoes)------

    "If you were incorporeal He would have given you those incorporeal gifts naked; but since the soul is intertwined with the body, He hands over to you in tangible things that which is perceived intellectually. How many now say, 'I wish I could see His shape, His appearance, His garments, His sandals.' Only look! You see Him! You touch Him! You eat Him!"

    -"Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew" [82,4] 370 A.D. ).

  • Rodd Umlauf Oct. 7, 2011 at 4:15 PM

    This is a wonderful article. Evangelicals need to come to the realization that the entire body is meant to worship God with all of its senses. Beauty should be portrayed in our worship in the Sacrifice of Praise and Thanksgiving that we bring to the Altar of the Lord each Lord's Day. The Early Christians modeled their worship after the Heavenly Worship of God spoken of in the Book of Revelation. What is the worship in heaven like ? If we are truly united to heavenly worship maybe heaven's worship could help us better develope a more mature theology of worship.
    Sadly, many Evangelical churches only have a boxy looking pulpit on a barren stage. They have "altar calls" but have removed the Altar. Sacred Space is the not the same as the sanctified common.
    Worship is to be Beautiful in all dimensions.

  • Mani Oct. 7, 2011 at 7:31 PM

    Ashish , the article is well written. I really like the cathedrals in Europe . I feel very spiritual when I look at those beautiful stained glass work of art. Thanks for the article. Mani aunty

  • Lolita Oct. 7, 2011 at 9:13 PM

    Thank you for sharing your eloquently stated thoughts regarding your yearning for the contemporary evangelical church to return to the appreciation of the expressed sacred space through the arts, Dr. Naidu. I too so appreciate the beauty of the expressions of art you refer to in your letter, and appreciate your heart for God, your personal yearning to honor Him in all of His glory!
    What I truly would like to see is for each gathering body of Christ to come into the fullness of its unique expression of worship in Christ which God has given each body, instead of the present expression coming from the Church’s tendency and propensity to focus on either past church history of error, or to focus and respond out of the present day secular cultural influences. I would like to see each church just simply freely express who they are in Christ in all the glorious gifts He has given to each body with His knitting lives and hearts together, His gathering specific individuals to each church body for His purposes to presently serve His church and secular community in that geographic area. For the leadership of the church to foster and know the rich gifts which are in their midst resulting from their present focus on Him solely, and on their intentional pursuit to be sensitive to Him in how He would like to allow for the expression of the worship gifts He has brought to their church through the individuals’ unique gifting in Christ .….what’s coming to mind is 1 Corinthians 12, the diversity of the Spirit’s gifts of worship expressed in a varied of ways in a geographic area, which I wonder if some churches would express more artistic mediums you are referring to, with other churches like we see with the stark “barren stage” of the pulpit, amongst the other forms of expression we see throughout His Church today; or if we would see in each church body an ebbing and flowing of the beautiful expression through the arts intermixed with the simplicity of the current expression of the evangelical church. Maybe we would even see other expressions we have not yet known…. wouldn’t that be exciting too
    I personally enjoy many expressions of worship of the sacred space in His Church with having varied relationships with many church denominations and church bodies in the States and abroad, finding each expression quite lovely of our Lord’s beauty and splendor in His heart’s desire to serve and touch hearts.

  • Joe Hellerman Oct. 8, 2011 at 6:43 PM

    Ashish, this is one of the finest posts I've read on our blog. You can tell by the feedback that you've really hit a nerve!

    A couple thoughts. In addition to (1) persistent dualism and (2) Reformation over-reaction, there is also (3) the issue of pragmatism, e.g., the way we've built out our churches to fit into their local suburban architectural context of strip malls, business complexes, and the like. Yuk.

    It has been pragmatism, though, that has led some evangelicals to feel that it is better to spend money on missions, for example, or social justice, than on architecturally inspiring but expensive church buildings—a choice I warmly commend. At any rate, we could no longer afford to build cathedrals even if we wanted to (though I think we could do a whole lot better than our current Wal-Mart architecture, even with the money we have!).

    Interestingly enough, the only Christian organizations that could conceivably resume building these kind of churches are institutional behemoths like the RC Church—and I have a major problem with large institutional Christianity, to begin with. How many of those awesome European cathedrals and basilicas were built on the backs of serfs and peasants, using money extracted from a marginalized majority, by a small percentage of elite bishops and secular leaders whose motives were mixed, at best?

    Medieval Europe inherited from the Romans an honor culture that viewed public benefaction by wealthy patrons (building public baths, temples, etc.) not only as a way to honor (the) God(s), but also (primarily?) as a way to gain public honor for the benefactor. I don't want to be a curmudgeon here. Just trying to remind us of some of the social realities 'on the ground,' so to speak.

    Don't misunderstand. I am 1000% (yes, I know I enthusiastically added an extra zero here) in favor of the kind of approach to sacred space that sacramentalizes the totality of life, based on God's affirmation of the material universe at creation and, again, in the incarnation. You go, you Christian artists!!!

    Enough of my rant. GREAT blog post, Ashish. Thanks.


  • Rodd Umlauf Oct. 8, 2011 at 9:04 PM

    Dear Joe,

    You said, "the only Christian organizations that could conceivably resume building these kind of churches are institutional behemoths like the RC Church".

    I do not believe your statement is true. Christians in America give only about 3% of their income to the church....because "we can't afford to give more". If all we have belongs to God, why do we spend more money on our own personal homes than "the house of God"? Do Christians desire to worship the Lord in Beauty and Holiness ? No, they do not. Thats why Evangelical church buildings and worship spaces are so pathetic. But we can change if we want to. Do we spend our time and money on God or our fleshly pursuits of self ? Our priorities will be reflected in our Sacred Spaces.

  • Greg Oct. 8, 2011 at 11:24 PM

    As a rule, we Behemothians (aka, Catholics) have not lived up to our aesthetic best of late, especially here in SoCal.

    But Damian pointed to a recent offering in England that may----we can hope and pray----speak of things to come:

  • Ian McFarland Oct. 10, 2011 at 6:36 AM

    Nice job! There are some nice reflections on sacred space in George Hunsinger's recent book on the Eucharist, so this is a theme that I think is (rightly) growing in theological significance.

  • Tim Oct. 17, 2011 at 1:57 AM

    Isaiah 6:3 tells us the angels cry "holy, holy, holy is the LORD of host: the whole earth is full of his glory.

    It seems to me that you might be creating your own form of dualism by suggesting that man can create sacred space. If the whole earth is full of his glory, how can man add to it? Is holy space lacking from it's current "fullness"?

    "Reformation over-reaction"?
    I don't think so. The household of faith is in desparate need of far more reformation. The last reformation has left the church lurching back to sacerdotalism and all of it's cathedral centered church life, rather than home and marketplace. The whole pulpit and pew orientation of any kind of building is a complete contradiction of God's design for His people being a body - members of one another who are to fully participate in building one another up. "Not forsaking assembly" is specified as "considering how we can spur one another on to love and good works. One man's lecture is a very bad substitute for this design, no matter how artistic the pulpit. "Preach the word..." does not mean "Lecture the word..."

    I just got an email from Gospel For Asia. A group seeking to gather American dollars to fund Indian saints to spread the gospel around one of the poorest and darkest areas in the world. It is a highly strategic approach to reaching all nations. This is of far greater importance than to make sure American believers get a weekly professional Bible lecture 1000+ times in their life. But this email was asking me to donate for church buildings at $11,000 each because the Indian saints are tired of meeting from house to house and they don't think they are being seen as "respectable" in their community without a holy building, blah, blah... What a shame to think these poor saints are thinking these resources should buy them a building rather than impacting directly the DEEP needs in their community and sending the gospel to thousands more places where people are going to hell with the gospel not presented to them as Jesus commanded. Is my concern misplaced or should I rather be concerned that they invest enough to make sure these buildings display awe inspiring artistry?

    I know you are fully aware of the scripture that speaks specifically that God is interested in "living" stones, and "holy people", and that God does not dwell in buildings made with hands.... I noticed your article had no scripture except that which said the reverse of your point. It seems you nuanced that into the background with "in this sense...". It seems you are seeking some other sense to go with it. Do you know of any scripture that communicates God's call to believers to develop "holy space"?

    Is it possible that the holy space issue is an old tradition that refuses to die that has a life driven by walkng by sight rather than by faith?

  • Richard Zuelch Oct. 23, 2011 at 7:47 PM

    Good article. The problem with most modern art - especially modern Christian art - can be seen just by walking around the Biola campus. Too much art by Christians looks exactly the same as art by pagans.

  • JudeThom Sep. 10, 2013 at 8:19 AM

    It is always good to venerate icons.

  • Ray Cole Jan. 19, 2016 at 8:50 AM

    While I understand the value found in art, as an Evangelical, the sacred space God occupies is now my circumcised heart.

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