Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), in collaboration with The Reach Gallery Museum, Abbotsford, B.C., brought a peace symposium to Abbotsford to explore the nature of peace and the relationship between art and peacemaking. Goya: The Disasters of War and Los Caprichos, organized and circulated by the National Gallery of Canada, ran Jan. 26–Mar. 25 at The Reach. Columbia Bible College students Erin Martens and Justin Koop reflected on the exhibit as an artist and theology student, respectively.
Erin and Justin:
Eighty prints by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828) line the walls of the gallery, depicting Spanish nationals’ struggle against Napoleon’s conquering force. Defeat becomes quickly apparent through depictions of victors gloating over dead bodies and raping women. The utter despair of an overtaken people is a loud and undeniable message within images of brutality etched onto paper: bombs explode, body parts hang, children wail, men choke. While the cry for justice is clear, the collection ends with no certain promises.
However, we can continue the conversation. As we live in the world but not “of” it, Christians should not turn our backs on reality, but act and think differently. Though Goya’s images depict horror, they also magnify the world’s need for a different way: peace and reconciliation.
The exhibit gives us a look through the lens of Goya’s thoughts on war and injustice. Some claim Goya’s work was the precursor to photojournalism; rather than glorify war, he depicted its devastating effects.
The images and conversations around this exhibit teach the emotive power of art. As 21st-century viewers read despair and anguish on 19th-century faces, they become connected. The viewer is stirred to anger and compassion by the abstract idea of the violence of war.
Even the process of producing the images is harsh. Using a printmaking process called Aquatint, acid burns lines into copper plates, creating a neutral colour palette that capitalizes on lights and darks. And these images are now burned into the viewer’s memories.
Art’s main power is its ability to connect the abstract with reality. We can speak of the atrocities experienced in 19th-century Spain, but words simply don’t affect us in the way visuals can. We can speak of rape as a cold, abstract fact, but it’s another thing to witness the horror before our eyes.
In a similar way, art can (and, I argue, ought to) be used to assist our theological process. Doing theology is a process of getting to know God more fully. One must not simply understand God in the same way we understand biology, but we must understand him in the way an 80-year-old man knows his wife of 50 years.
Because this is how we need to know God, we must experience him in life, or in the great words of Hans Denck, “To know Christ is to follow him in life.” Christians must allow art to be an “icon” – a visual representation of something more.
I suggest three practical applications for art in our church today:
First, art can be used for educational purposes in both the classroom and church. It is already used with children, but is lost as we mature. The teaching power of art does not lessen with age.
Second, art can be used for truth-telling. Art is a powerful medium for demonstrating emotion behind significant historical events and theological truths. It’s one thing to speak of Christ’s resurrection, and another to depict it as Christ treading upon Satan while rising from the tomb in victory.
Third, art can call us to action. We view images, such as the ones created by Goya, so we understand on more than an intellectual level that Christ’s kingdom is required here today. We become disgusted and unsettled to gain the motivation to minister to our broken world. Art reminds us there is tangible pain which must be made right on all levels of life.
–Erin Martens is a fourth-year student in the worship arts program at Columbia Bible College (CBC). Her home church is Altona (Man.) Mennonite Church.
–Justin L. Koop is a fourth-year student in biblical studies at CBC. His home church is McIvor Avenue MB Church, Winnipeg.