Art, Scandal, and the Cross, Part 1

the_crowning Herman

Image: Bruce Herman, “The Crowning,” from Golgotha series

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men1 Corinthians 1:22-25 (ESV)


In my last posting I mentioned that during my college years (mid to late 1970’s) the ethos of the art world was still dominated by critical theory that excluded literary references (perhaps especially the Bible) in contemporary visual art. Even though Andy Warhol and Pop Art had exploded the hegemonic control of “pure painting” that was promoted during the 50s by blurring the boundary between “high” and popular culture, university art programs were still a decade later largely a product of the Abstract Expressionist idea that visual art should be primarily “formal” – that is, preoccupied with form, color, texture, etc. Paintings should be about paint, not illustrations of poems or stories. “Illustration” was actually a dirty word in university painting departments. Yet I was unconvinced. I felt that art and poetry, art and the Bible could get along just fine—just as they had during most of Western art history. Interestingly, contemporary art, which is often associated with socially transgressive imagery and content, had made sincere religious images the last taboo.

Just after I finished grad-school, an influential museum curator in the Boston area showed interest in my art and included me in a statewide survey exhibition of contemporary painters. He told me to stay in touch and keep him abreast of developments in my studio—and he’d potentially offer me a one-person show. A short time after that, my personal life went into a tailspin connected with my conversion to Christian faith. (That’s another, rather long story.) And as a result of this tumultuous time in my life, I left the Boston art community and moved away (both geographically and artistically).

A decade later, when I had found my feet again and developed a means of incorporating art into my worship and my faith into my art, I sent this museum official examples of my Golgotha series—large paintings and drawings all depicting the sufferings of Jesus on Good Friday. I do not remember what I expected by way of response from him, but the curator wrote back a two-page letter telling me that while he still admired me as a painter, he thought I had committed intellectual and artistic suicide by trying to “illustrate the Bible.” He wrote, “Bruce – no one believes this stuff anymore, and using bible stories as the crux of your work is really not viable for a contemporary artist. Sincerely meant religious imagery died out almost two hundred years ago. You know this.” I was very grateful for his honesty and willingness to coach me a bit instead of simply writing the typical polite brush-off. But I strongly disagreed with him and still do. I wrote back saying, “I hope you live long enough to see that you’re wrong on this one, friend.”

Yet despite the massively changed world of contemporary art—where now nearly anything goes—the idea that a serious contemporary artist would incorporate non-ironic biblical imagery into her paintings is still pretty much beyond the pale. Most evangelical Christians I know who show their work in contemporary galleries or museums need to keep their religion below the radar artistically speaking. It is as though the tradition of public scandal associated with modern art has reversed direction and now finds sincere religious art to be an offence.

The tradition of the artistic scandal (succès de scandale) beginning in mid-19th century France has more than a century of steam behind it here in the States. But what I find personally fascinating is the fact that the Cross of Christ, which began as a scandal (σκανδαλον – skandalon­ – a stumbling stone) in 1st century Palestine, is now, twenty centuries later, socially unacceptable again among the intelligentsia.

NOTE: I’ll continue a discussion of art, faith, and scandal in my next posting.


  1. How do you incorporate sincerely held faith into your academic discipline? Does belief in God seem to be irrelevant to the pursuit of science, engineering, medicine, or literary studies?
  2. Does the tradition of art as social protest or political dissent have possibilities for Christians who work in the fine arts? What connections, if any, could be made between the tradition of artistic scandal and intentional use of this by Christians?


God, you have searched me and known me. You are intimately acquainted with all my ways—inside and out. Cure me of the tendency to put self-expression at the forefront in my work. Help me to connect deeply with others, to care and work tirelessly in order that the world be leavened with Your love—in the arts and humanities no less than in the helping professions.


For more on the image above, see Bruce Herman’s Golgotha series:


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Bruce Herman

Bruce Herman (American, b. 1953) is a painter and educator living and working on Boston’s north shore. Herman's art is featured in many public and private art collections including the Vatican Museum of Modern Religious Art in Rome; The Cincinnati Museum of Fine Arts; DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; the Cape Ann Museum, and in many universities throughout the United States and Canada. His art has been exhibited internationally––in England, Israel, Russia, Japan, Italy, and Canada––and nationally in eleven major US cities, including New York, Boston, Washington, and Los Angeles. Most recently Herman’s art was published in a thirty-year retrospective in the book Through Your Eyes, 2013, Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. Herman began the Art Department at Gordon College in 1988. Currently he holds the Lothlórien Distinguished Chair in Fine Arts there, and has taught and curated exhibitions at Gordon since 1984. Herman completed both undergraduate and graduate fine arts degrees at Boston University College of Fine Arts. He lectures widely and has had work published in many books, journals, and popular magazines.

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    John Mulholland commented on January 22, 2015 Reply

    Very interesting reflection on faith and art. However, I must challenge you on your comment that the Cross of Christ is unacceptable among the intelligentsia today. I don’t see a situation as grim as the one you are painting, pun intended.

    Here are several major artists of the 20th century for whom the Cross was and is a major part of their work. Max Beckmann’s Descent from the Cross, Dali’s Crucifixion, Rouault in his Misere series, Chagal and his White Cross, and Andy Warhol’s crosses, as well as his silk screen renditions of DaVinci’s Last Supper. At the bottom of Wikipedia’s article “The Crucifixion in the Arts” one will find more works.

    True, not everyone honors all of this work, but people differ on many things.

    Add in all the religious imagery, including the Cross, which made its way into the arts during the Civil Rights movement in songs, literature and art works, both negatively by the Ku Klux Klan with their burning “crosses” and positively by those seeking to deal with an horrendous legacy of slavery and discrimination, and one has a very impressive display of the Cross in our time, however much some people oppose the idea.

    In short, all of this to say – does one need to be care-full about one’s perspective, pun intended, when addressing the issue of the Cross in modern art and society? Does one need to do even more research on art works, artists, scholars and critics in order to make sure one is getting the whole picture, again pun intended ?

    God bless you and your work. I look forward to following reports.

      Bruce commented on January 23, 2015 Reply

      Thanks for your comment John. You seem to have taken my post as a grim picture, and possibly I have overstated the case. I did not intend to express hopelessness–rather to reveal a personal encounter with current attitudes in the art world to overtly sincere religious imagery. Also, all of the examples you cite are from much earlier in the last century when the holdover of Christian values and legacy still had purchase. All examples of religious imagery I can think of in contemporary art tend toward the ironic use when traditional symbols are employed (Robert Gober’s current installation at MOMA is an example). See Matt Milliner’s recent article in First Things on the topic. I think you’ll find it informative and picante.

    Sean commented on January 25, 2015 Reply

    Interesting article. I think it’s great that you are posing these questions and trying to get a dialogue around the topic. It is particularly of interest to me, since I am currently an MFA going up for thesis soon, and trying to figure out/not fret about how to navigate these questions in my work.

    Here is a link to my website if you’d like to take a look.

    Thanks for the article,


    Bruce commented on January 25, 2015 Reply

    Enjoyed your web site Sean–your work is richly layered, both visually and in terms of imagery and content.

    John Mulholland commented on January 25, 2015 Reply

    Thanks for your reply Bruce. I guess my concern is that the picture you have painted is much more grim than the one I see. For example, Matthew Milliner published an article in 2011, “The Return of the Religious in Contemporary Art”, where he described what he saw to be a recovery of interest in religion in art, both in the works of artists he cites and in the work of scholars surveying the scene – in this case Sally Promey at Yale.

    In addition, Milliner organized an event the Art Institute of Chicago on the Eucharist a year ago, which is worthy to note.

    Admittedly, this is not a groundswell by any means. But, when one then adds in The Yale Institute of Sacred Music [and the arts], Duke’s Initiative in Theology and the Arts, led by Jeremy Begbie,, the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts co-founded by Jeremy Begbie at St Mary’s College, the Divinity School at the University of St Andrews, Scotland,, and the Museum of Biblical Art in NYCity ,
    combined with the older works that I previously cited, and all the work Makoto Fujimura and CIVA have been doing, then it seems to me that openings are developing.

    I do not mean to diminish your personal experience of criticism, a horrid event, only to say that there are others you can call upon when faced with any comments like this in the future. However much your critic thinks, or rather more likely wishes, that religious art died out 200 years ago, he is very much mistaken.

    In short, Bruce and Sean and other artists, be encouraged !!!

    • Bruce Herman commented on January 25, 2015 Reply

      Thanks for your concern. Your reply was very thorough — and you may already know this, but in case you do not, I’ve been part of the leadership of CIVA for 25 years and have worked closely with Mako Fujimura collaborating on several major projects — also with Matt Milliner. So I am fully aware and involved in all that you have outlined. My posts have mostly been retrospective. If you re-read them you will catch my drift more I think. It is not all dismal — nor was I trying to indicate such. My over all point was more that the atmosphere in the 70’s and 80’s was profoundly hostile (in contemporary art) to orthodox Christian belief and to any overt or sincere religious imagery. That is still largely the case if you really pay attention to the art world. That said, as Matt Milliner has pointed out on several occasions (and as I and others have labored for decades) things are thawing for religious artists. Thanks again for your thoughtful engagement with these postings. It’s meaningful to have careful interlocutors.

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