Worship through visual art

A new hymnal leads the way

March 16, 2022 | Feature | Volume 26 Issue 6
Carol Penner | Special to Canadian Mennonite
In a piece titled “Migrant Journey,” artist Rafael Barahona explores a universal story that includes many perils but also a sense of hope. The art was inspired by Jeremiah 29:11 and Hebrews 11:1 and appears in the hymnal collection Voices Together, published by MennoMedia. (Artwork used with permission of Rafael Barahona)

One of the striking things about Voices Together, the new Mennonite song collection, is that it includes 12 pieces of visual art.

Images reach into our lives in a different way than written text or even music. I remember sitting in church services as a little kid, paging through my Bible and looking for pictures. Children growing up in congregations with the new hymnal will be shaped by the artwork they see there week after week.

For adults too, continued repetitive exposure to a piece of art can have a spiritual impact. Over time we apprehend different things as new layers of meaning emerge from a familiar piece of art. Christians through the centuries have known this, which is why many denominations regularly commission artwork to be placed in their worship spaces.

Sarah Johnson and SaeJin Lee co-chaired the hymnal’s visual art committee. Johnson, a visiting professor at the Vancouver School of Theology, hopes that the hymnal will encourage congregations to “welcome the gifts of visual artists in worship leadership.” She suggests that visual art in the hymnals is “an entry for those who are less comfortable with written words and musical notation, especially children, worshippers who do not speak English, and people with different ways of learning and expressing themselves.”

The visual art committee of Voices Together put out a call to artists to submit their work for consideration. The artists were invited to produce art on themes related to worship and aspects of the Christian story. The committee chose a dozen pieces to represent the diversity of the church in terms of gender, racial/ethnic identity and geographic location.

One of the artists was Meg Harder, who lives in St. Catharines, Ont. As a visual artist, she observes: “Growing up, the arts in Mennonite culture was typically very music focussed, so it was really exciting to have an opportunity to participate in the cultural life of Mennonites in a way that was more natural to me.”

Harder submitted a sample of her art, and the committee asked her to create something on the theme of “praising,” giving her specific biblical texts on which to reflect. She was drawn to the Book of Psalms for her inspiration and included images from the poetry of the psalms in her piece.

The artists used a variety of media: drawing, painting, printmaking, papercut, photography and digital illustration. One of the challenges for the artists was knowing their work would be reproduced in black and white and grey, and would be reduced to the size of a hymnal page. Harder often creates fraktur, a style of art that comes from the Pennsylvania-Dutch tradition. While her fraktur work is often characterized by bright colours, for this piece she deliberately used an ink wash, saying: “Grayscale brought a sobriety or sombreness to the work that I had not been able to achieve before. I really liked the effect.”

Artist SaeJin Lee talked about the feedback she received from the committee in the artistic process. They encouraged her to create a work of art that would appeal to children. There was “enthusiastic affirmation for keeping the depiction of people with various abilities represented in the final image,” Lee says. “The woman in the wheelchair was part of my initial sketch as well. To include that I think celebrates many people from different backgrounds, including those with various abilities in our midst.”

Experiencing the art

Mennonites have not always been comfortable with visual art in worship. Tom Yoder Neufeld, a Conrad Grebel University College professor emeritus who was also part of the Voices Together visual art committee, explains: “While uneasiness about visual art goes back millennia in Christian traditions, including Anabaptism, we have come to value deeply the capacity of visual art to deepen our spiritual sensitivity, our worship and our relationship to God.”

Using visual art in worship is natural for some congregations because they regularly draw on the art of their own church members in worship, whether through featuring it physically in the sanctuary, reproducing it in a bulletin or projecting it on a Sunday morning. Other congregations may be unsure about how to use visual art. There are resources in the Voices Together Worship Leader Edition on how artwork can be used in worship.

The visual art committee carefully chose the songs or hymns that would appear beside the artwork in the hymnal, as well as the Scripture passages on the reverse pages. Worshippers can be encouraged to look at a work of art while Scripture is read. For churches that have purchased a projection version of the hymnal, the images can be projected on a screen for the whole church to see.

Another option is a guided meditation called Visio Divina, in which worshippers encounter God through the sense of sight. The worship leader encourages people to enter the artwork reflectively, meditatively and prayerfully. This practice is based on the belief that God can speak to us through art, as it is a “visual retelling of God’s story.”

In connection with the launch of Voices Together, MennoMedia, the collection’s publisher, organized several events. One of these featured 10 of the visual artists talking about their work. (Watch it at here.)

An exhibit of the art was organized and is being shown at four Mennonite schools: Bethel College in Kansas, Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, Goshen College in Indiana and at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont. Starting in March, the Grebel Gallery will exhibit art from the hymnal and some companion pieces by the same artists. The exhibit is called “Voices Together: A Celebration of Art and Music.”

The exhibit was curated by Rachel Epp Buller, professor of visual arts and design at Bethel College and the director of the Regier Art Gallery. Buller is also one of the 12 featured artists. She curated a gallery book for this exhibit, in which the artists reflect on their work. An essay by Magdalene Redekop (a University of Toronto professor emeritus) describes her own experience of viewing the artwork. (Online at bit.ly/3w5r9IL.)

Paul Heidebrecht, director of the Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement at Grebel, says of the usefulness of this gallery book: “Each artist provides details on their contribution, and for those who can’t make it to the gallery, this online resource is a great way for people to see the artwork in its original colours.”

“We are eager to see how people’s experience of the original artwork that is reproduced in the Voices Together hymnal will prompt reflection—and provide inspiration for—the role of the visual arts in worship,” he says.

Carol Penner teaches practical theology at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ont. The exhibit at the Grebel Gallery runs from March 14 to May 6. For information about gallery hours and booking a group tour, visit https://bit.ly/3GZ2aJE.


For discussion

1. How much visual art is on display in the worship space of your congregation? Has this changed over time? Why do some traditional Mennonite groups keep their worship spaces plain and simple?

2. Carol Penner says that “continued repetitive exposure to a piece of art can have a spiritual impact.” Do you agree? Can you think of times and places where you have been drawn closer to God through contemplation of visual art?

3. Meghan Harder says that Mennonite arts have traditionally been focused on music. Do you agree? How important is it to have visual art included in the new hymnal?

4. If you were re-designing the worship space in your church, what visual art would you include?

—By Barb Draper

In a piece titled “Migrant Journey,” artist Rafael Barahona explores a universal story that includes many perils but also a sense of hope. The art was inspired by Jeremiah 29:11 and Hebrews 11:1 and appears in the hymnal collection Voices Together, published by MennoMedia. (Artwork used with permission of Rafael Barahona)

For the digitally created image titled “Communion,” Canadian artist Dona Park depicted soup and rice, expanding the idea of communion beyond bread and wine to show it as an international feast. (Artwork used with permission of the artist)

Artist SaeJin Lee worked with watercolour paint and coloured pencils to create “Tree of Life.” Inspired by this biblical image of restoration, she writes, “So come, friends, rest, play, and belong.” (Artwork used with permission of the artist)

In “Sing the Goodness” artist Meg Harder used ink on paper to depict imagery from the Psalms, including human mouths, waters that “roar” and mountains that “sing together.” (Artwork used with permission of the artist)

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