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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Bible and ArtLynn R. Huber

Editor's Note: Portions of this article will appear in Mark Roncace and Patrick Gray, eds., The Bible, Popular Culture, and the Arts: Resources for Instructors (Society of Biblical Literature, forthcoming).

The opening line of John's Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word," seemingly sets the tone for teaching and learning within the field of biblical studies. Those who reside and teach in this field of study not only begin with "the Word," but we typically remain focused, perhaps obsessively, upon words. However, John's Gospel pushes us to shift our glance away from the page, as it is arguably as much about the visual as it is about the verbal. On more than one occasion, John depicts Jesus asserting that whoever has seen him has seen God (12:44-45; 14:9; cf. 1:14-18). Throughout the Johannine text, the verbal or textual and the visual are intricately related — reinforcing, interpreting, and expanding upon one another. Taking a cue from the Johannine tradition, we contend that visual art, including but not limited to works of art that specifically reference the Bible, can be an integral part of the biblical studies classroom: reinforcing, interpreting, and expanding upon the texts we explore.

Here we will highlight some of the reasons for employing art in this traditionally textual environment, outline some of the ways that visual art can be incorporated into teaching, and discuss how one might guide students in the interpretation of images.

Beyond the Johannine call that we attend to the visual, there are obvious pedagogical reasons for making the visual a presence in the biblical studies classroom. First, while most of us who specialize in biblical studies are close readers of the texts in their original languages, our students often have to be taught how to "see" even the most obvious textures in these ancient writings. This is particularly true given that Western culture has been saturated with biblical imagery, themes, language, and thinking patterns. This saturation effectively blinds many students to the complexity of the biblical writings. Exploring visual art with our students trains their eyes to see detail in an image, which helps them see detail in other things, such as writings. Using two different types of material, textual and visual/artistic, to develop our students' seeing and reading skills acknowledges the widely accepted notion, articulated famously by Howard Gardner, that attending to multiple intelligences enhances student learning and the retention of ideas and skills.[1]

Second, in an age of biblical fundamentalism (an interpretive perspective adopted by both "conservatives" and "liberals"), students have to be pushed to see the possibility of multiple interpretations in texts, especially texts that many hold as sacred. Most students have been better trained to think that "beauty is the eye of the beholder," which assumes that an interpreter's perspective shapes her interaction with a piece of art, than to recognize the same phenomenon exists when approaching a written text. Hopefully their recognition that a Picasso or Matisse yields many interpretive possibilities dependent upon the "eye of the beholder" will be translated to the prophets and the Gospels when we address the visual and the textual side by side.

Third, even when we don't incorporate the visual into our classrooms, it is present in our students' minds. Regardless of their religious upbringings, as products of Western culture, our students carry with them images related to the writings we explore, including mental pictures of Jesus shaped by the memory of Jim Caviezel playing Jesus in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and visions of God colored by Michelangelo's depiction on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Many of our students come to class knowing exactly what these figures look like and how they act in certain situations. But this is only because these are the images with which they have been inculturated. Such a viewpoint often negates real, open interaction with the text. Intentionally incorporating the visual into our classrooms sheds light on these culturally given images, allowing both students and instructors to be more critical of how we use mental images to fill in textual gaps. The use of images, therefore, can disrupt our students' mental images, encourage them to develop more complex mental pictures, and prepare them for the multivocality of the text.

In addition, attention to the visual requires students to think metaphorically, abstractly, and in other non-literal ways. These ways of "seeing" are similar to the forms of perception employed in religion and religious texts.[2] Religious discourse, including the biblical writings, swells with metaphor and imagery. Our students, often pressed into literal thinking when reading textbooks, are sometimes hesitant to engage fully the metaphors and images presented in the Bible. Engaging visual art, including abstract art, can help students begin to think in abstract and metaphorical terms.

Categories for Employing Art in the Classroom
As a means of thinking about the variety of ways that art can be used in a biblical studies class, we will outline three general approaches to using art: (1) art as illustration; (2) art as narrative interpretation; (3) art as illumination. These three categories, which should be understood as fluid categories, are borrowed from the work of Katharine Martinez on the use of images in the field of American history.[3] This is a field that, like ours, has been historically beholden to the textual, and so Martinez's categories are easily adaptable to our work.

Art as Illustration
Using visual art as an illustration of a particular point or idea that we hope to make about a text or tradition is the most basic approach to employing the visual in the classroom. An image can be used to underscore an interpretive point we wish to make or to help our students recognize something about the text that they might otherwise overlook. For example, if we wanted to have students remember the point made at the beginning of this chapter — that John's Gospel is as much about the visual as it is about the verbal, we might choose to show students an image that captures this point. A twelfth-century manuscript held at the British Library, in which the words of the first chapter of John are printed in the form of a cross, could be used for just such an occasion.[4]

Images have the power to prompt viewers to recognize an aspect of the text they might overlook or find difficult to comprehend. For example, a teacher may want to emphasize with students as they read the nativity stories, especially Luke's annunciation story, that the designation "virgin" implies a young girl. However, students sometimes have a difficult time grasping that within Luke's social context an unmarried girl was truly a girl and not a young woman. To help students comprehend this, one might show an image that highlights Mary's youth. A good example is The Annunciation, by Jennifer Linton, in which Linton depicts Mary as a pubescent girl.[5] Portraying Mary and Gabriel in modern dress, Linton's image depicts Mary as a young girl, lying on the ground with her head propped on her arm. When presented with this image, students inevitably say something about Mary's age. The almost androgynous appearance of Mary reminds us that "virgins" within the first century were, typically, pubescent girls. Even though Linton's image places the story of the annunciation in a contemporary context, it allows students to think about the text in relation to its historical context and pushes students to see something about the text that they might have overlooked or misunderstood.

Art as Narrative Interpretation
While images can be used to illustrate texts, works of visual art often involve more complex relationships between text and image than the illustrative model allows. In fact, simply treating visual art in terms of textual illustration runs the risk of replicating a problematic assumption that has historically plagued textually focused fields of study — that images are somehow easier to understand or less complex than written texts. We might describe this as the legacy of Gregory the Great and his infamous claim (in Ep. 105 of Book 9) that Church art was primarily to teach the unlearned masses what they were unable to read in the text.[6] Implied in this claim is an assumption that images are readily understandable even when an audience has little or no resources for interpreting images. Despite Gregory's claim, images are not necessarily easier to understand than texts, and they require their own sort of "reading."[7] In a way similar to how we make sense of a Psalm or a Pauline letter, we make sense out of images by interpreting the signs within the image in relation to certain concepts and ideas, within a certain contextual frame.

This brings us to the second approach to using visual art in our classrooms: reading a piece of art as an interpretation or reading of a biblical text. This approach can involve having students read images explicitly framed as narrative interpretations of biblical texts or reframing non-biblical images in relationship to a specific document or pericope.

Marc Chagall's Creation of Man provides an example of a work of art that is framed or presented as an interpretation of a specific biblical text.[8] In Gen 1:26-27, God says, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." Chagall renders this verse by depicting a winged, human-like creature holding the limp body of man in its arms. This winged creature occupies the center of the canvas, which is painted primarily in shades of blue, while in the upper right-hand corner rainbow colors spiral out of a red orb. Intermingled with the spiraling colors are various images, including a ram-headed person carrying a scroll, a crucifix, a praying figure, and another angelic being. Coming out of this spiral is also an image of hands holding tablets that recall traditional images of the stone tablets of the Decalogue.

Upon presenting an image of narrative interpretation like this to students, ask them first to describe what they see. What are the elements of art in the image? Lines, colors, composition? After they have described what they see, prompt students to think about how what they see reads the text: What does it capture from the text? What does it highlight? What does it downplay? This method of reading the image parallels the reading of texts, in which we look at the text's component parts — the words, grammar, syntax, structure, imagery — before addressing its meaning or possible meanings.[9]

After describing the elements that comprise Chagall's painting, or a similar piece, students should be ready to discuss possible meanings of the image and its elements. How does this particular painting read the Genesis text? For example, with Chagall's Creation of Man one might ask students what the red globe might represent? Does it represent something from the text? Why does it have these attendant images — a crucifix, angels, animals? In this way, we begin to unpack the meanings of the image in relation to the text.

Chagall's painting shows us, moreover, the complex ways in which an image reads a text. With its allusions to the giving of the Mosaic Law suggested in the image of the tablets, to the crucifixion, and to cultural gender roles (through an image of the bride and groom), Chagall's painting rings with many of the same intertextual allusions and echoes that are often brought by interpreters to the text of Genesis. In this way, the painting does not "solve" the interpretive problems of the text. It highlights interpretive issues and textual problems with Genesis. The depiction of an angel holding the body of the man, for example, does little to solve Genesis' use of the plural, "Let us make humankind/Adam in our image." Is this Chagall's depiction of God? Or, could this winged figure be a co-creator implied in the plural pronouns? These are just a few of the most obvious ways in which Chagall's painting presents itself as a multi-layered text, just as Genesis 1 is a complicated text.

One of the issues that we should be aware of as we "read" images in relation to biblical texts is the fact that the language of images, just as the language of biblical texts, is not a universal language.[10] The meanings of the various elements that comprise a particular piece of visual art may need to be translated into a language understandable by students. For example, in Chagall's painting he includes an image of stone tablets that students may not know as a visual sign of the Decalogue, unless they have seen Charleston Heston in The Ten Commandments (to use one image as a cipher for translating another!). Leading students through a piece of art often requires helping students translate unfamiliar and ambiguous images.

With images that are explicitly framed as biblical interpretations, it can be illuminating to show more than one image interpreting the same text as a way of highlighting how texts yield multiple meanings. For instance, alongside of Chagall's twentieth-century version of the sixth day of creation, one might have students view a medieval manuscript that illustrates the same text. Juxtaposing different images, especially images from different time periods, allows students to see the different possible ways a single text can be imagined and understood. This can also be used to help students see the diachronic development of interpretations in the Western tradition in general.[11] Moreover, the use of images from different historical, social, and cultural contexts visually demonstrates how textual interpretations are shaped by contextual concerns, issues, and questions. This, in turn, can allow us to talk with students about how their own locations similarly shape the interpretive grids that they bring to the biblical texts.

Besides paintings that explicitly frame themselves as biblical interpretations, we find it particularly enriching to reframe images depicting subjects other than biblical subjects, encouraging students to read these images in relation to particular biblical texts.[12] Often images that are explicitly biblical replicate the ideological assumptions communicated through the texts, while images of other subjects, reframed in relation to the biblical, might challenge ideological claims of the biblical writings.

For example, read in relationship to 1 Corinthians, Robert Mapplethorpe's 1982 black and white photograph of body-builder Lisa Lyon, simply entitled Lisa Lyon, provides a provocative starting point for a critical discussion of Paul's discussions of women's roles in worship, specifically his suggestion that women who pray and prophesy in the religious assembly be veiled.[13] The "portrait" displays the female body builder from the waist up. Her right arm is flexed and her left hand pushes her right wrist for resistance. Lyon wears a black leather bustier and a black hat with a sheer black veil. Through the veil, the audience can see a stoic Lyon. Admittedly, the veil that Lyon wears is different from veils worn in the ancient world; however, the image allows students to think about some of the implications involved with veiling. In particular, Lyon's posture of power, as suggested in her flexed arm, prompts students to read 1 Cor 11 as a text about power and limiting power:

Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head . . . For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man . . . For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels . . . Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled?

After having students read this passage, one might ask them to imagine that this portrait of Lyon represents women in Paul's congregation: Does she represent the women Paul hopes to address in his letter or does Lyon embody the women in the congregation after they have received the letter? If students suggest the former, we might encourage them to use elements from the image to explain why they think Paul felt the need to address these women. If students suggest the latter, then have them imagine how Lyon's image functions as a response to Paul. In particular, what does this portrait suggest about how Paul's audience might have responded to Paul's suggestion that women ought to be veiled? Among other things, this image allows students to imagine that Paul's view may have met with various responses among the women in the Corinthian community. It suggests the possibility, for instance, that women remained powerful even under the veil.

Art as Illumination
Martinez identifies a final approach to art that involves using art as illumination. Using art as illumination, Martinez explains, entails making connections between different subjects with and through visual art, employing pieces of visual art to make our way through complex ideas. Abstract art can be a helpful way into many of the ideas that present themselves as we engage biblical texts, including issues of hermeneutics and the creation and function of texts. While abstract art is sometimes understood as non-denotative or non-representational, works of art typically recognized as abstract still show patterns, feelings, and ideas.

Using pieces of abstract art in the biblical studies context involves metaphorical thinking, using the visual experience to consider an idea or feeling. Because these pieces are typically open-ended, they can serve as conversation partners for understanding a variety of difficult concepts.[14] For instance, when talking to students about interpreting biblical texts, it can be difficult for them to grasp that their view of a particular writing is filtered through layers of interpretive tradition. It can be even more difficult for them to understand that many of the biblical writings began as oral traditions that have been shaped to fit into written narratives, adding to the interpretive layers surrounding a particular story. An image such as Paul Klee's Around the Kernel, a painting that consists of a spiraling line and layers of color around a small drop-like center, provides a way into these issues with students. Students can be asked to imagine the line as a textual tradition that develops around the "kernel" of an oral tradition, or they might be prompted to think about the colors of the painting as overlapping traditions.

In addition, as teachers of biblical subjects, we often find ourselves addressing topics of ethical, political, and social importance. Our subject matter necessarily raises discussions of class, ethnic identity, peace and war, sexuality, and family relationships. Given the cultural importance of the biblical texts in these discussions and our students' differing relationships to these texts, at times it is helpful to offer a "neutral" text or image to begin these often polarizing conversations. As Robin Jensen points out, visual art often serves a prophetic function, illuminating "individual and communal evil."[15] Art, such as Mary Lovelace O'Neal's abstract lithograph Racism Is Like Rain, Either It's Raining of It's Gathering, challenges the viewer to imagine how racism functions and how it might be challenged. Using a piece of art to discuss topics such as racism or poverty, before turning to the biblical texts, helps students see the historical and contemporary reality of such problems and allows them to reflect on their understanding of the issues before considering the way in which they are addressed in biblical texts. Hopefully, this has the effect of making some students less defensive when addressing the Bible critically and other students more aware of how these ancient texts might have contemporary relevance.

Teaching Students to Read and Think through Images
Successfully employing visual art in the biblical studies classroom requires teaching students how to read and think through images in a careful and critical fashion. Sometimes we assume that they will be better equipped to interpret images or visual art than texts, since our students have been raised in a world in which they are bombarded with images. However, it is problematic to equate exposure to the visual with an ability to navigate critically the complexities inherent in a piece of visual art. In fact, the need to teach students how to read biblical texts is paralleled by the need to teach students how to read visual texts. Furthermore, our students have to be taught to take time with art, to not just look at a piece, but to really see a piece. As Douglas Adams and Diane Apostolos-Cappadona have observed, the learned discipline of seeing means that the viewer allows a piece of art to engage, challenge, and even transform her.[16]

There are a variety of ways to encourage our students to become more careful readers of images. Besides incorporating visual art into our classroom presentations, it is possible to have students read images outside of the classroom, alongside of the texts they read for class. One might assign specific images for students to attend to alongside of their reading. Class websites and blogs make this relatively easy, since an instructor can gather images electronically for students to view. It is also interesting to have students find and share images that relate to class readings. In our own classrooms, students have come to class with images ranging from Adam and Eve for an Altoids advertisement to a Rolling Stone photograph of Madonna, taken by David LaChapelle, which can be read as an allusion to Revelation's Great Prostitute. This approach allows students to gather their own images and think through them on their own. In addition, it can help an instructor build her or his own image collection through images found by student effort.

To guide students through the interpretation of images, especially images that involve the interpretation of biblical texts, it can be helpful to have a guideline for them to follow as they read images. First, encourage students to take time to look at an image. This may seem obvious; however, students tend to turn quickly to the question of what an image means, failing to look at the image before analyzing it and writing about it. Second, have students describe the artistic elements within the image. It may be necessary to provide them with the vocabulary for describing an image (color, line, texture, balance, etc.). It can be helpful to offer students explicit questions that they should consider as they look at an image: What media are used to create the image? What lines, shapes, textures, and patterns do you see? Do the lines and shapes of the image suggest movement? How does the image use space? Is there negative space? Or, is the piece completely "full"? What colors do you see? Is the piece monochromatic?

Third, after having students describe what they see in the image, you might prompt them to read the image either alone or in relation to a particular text. For instance, ask them to talk about what the text "says" and how it "says" it. If you are having them read an image in relation to a text, ask them to describe what parts of the text the image captures and what parts it seems to ignore. Finally, you may want to provide students an opportunity to communicate their own opinions about the piece. Given the deliberate nature of the process, the opinions they articulate are hopefully grounded in their observations of the image rather than the students' initial impressions of a piece.

Making art an integral part of the classroom requires a number of commitments on behalf of the teacher. First, it takes time. It takes time to find pieces that provoke us and speak to us. While images are becoming easier to access through electronic resources, developing a collection of high-quality images is still labor intensive. Image databases, such as ARTstor (a non-profit digital library sponsored by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) and CAMIO (a non-profit database sustained by OCLC — the Online Computer Library Center), allow instructors and students at subscribing institutions access to thousands of images for instructional purposes.[17] Thankfully, these electronic resources make it possible for instructors to use copyrighted images legally, which is a growing concern in the digital age. Also, we would recommend using images that captivate or challenge you as a teacher. If you find the piece engaging, it will be much easier for you to help students engage with the piece. Second, this takes a certain willingness to engage different types of art. If all of our images are medieval manuscripts or renaissance paintings they lose their power to provoke our students to look for the different ways texts and images function. We need to look in unexpected places, among the self-taught artists, the conceptual artists, and photographers to really get our students to think about the variety of ways texts and images communicate.

Successfully employing art in the classroom means that we are willing to allow art to challenge us and our students. Artists, especially modern and contemporary artists, often challenge the status quo. Many pieces that you find will challenge commonly held ideologies and theological assumptions. Before we bring these types of images into the classroom, we have to consider whether we are ready for the challenge.

Lynn Huber, Elon University and Dan Clanton, Denver Colorado

[1] For a brief discussion of artistic intelligence in relation to the theory of multiple intelligences, see Howard Gardner, "Artistic Intelligence," Art Education 36 (1983): 47-49.

[2] Margaret R. Miles, Image as Insight: Visual Understanding in Western Christianity and Secular Culture (Boston: Beacon, 1985), 4.

[3] Katharine Martinez, "Imaging the Past: Historians, Visual Images and the Contested Definition of History" Visual Resources 11 (1995): 21-45.

[4] "Gospel of St. John," Gospel Lectionary, 12th century. British Library, London. Cited 13 March 2007.

[5] Jennifer Linton, The Annunciation, 2002. Collection of the Artist, Toronto. Cited 13 March 2007. Online: .

[6] While Gregory's claim may appear to be disparaging toward art, it was part of his defense against the destruction of icons or images.

[7] Mieke Bal, "Reading Art?" in Generations and Geographies in the Visual Arts: Feminist Readings (ed. G. Pollock; London: Routledge, 1996), 25-41, esp. 32.

[8] Marc Chagall, The Creation of Man, 1956-58. Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall, Nice, France. Cited 27 Mar 2007. Online .

[9] For a useful guide in thinking about what to look for in a piece of art, see Steven Engler and Irene Naested, "Reading Images in the Religious Studies Classroom," Teaching Theology and Religion (2002): 161-68.

[10] Miles, Image as Insight, 29-34.

[11] For a discussion of how art can be used to discuss the history of a biblical text's interpretation, see Robin M. Jensen, The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 34-45.

[12] See Bal, "Reading Art?" 27-28, for a discussion of framing and reframing.

[13] Robert Mapplethorpe, Lisa Lyon, 1982. Available in Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition (ed. Germano Celant, et. al.; Guggenheim Museum: NY, 2004), pl. 75.

[14] Douglas Adams and Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, "Art as Religious Studies: Insights into the Judeo-Christian Traditions," in Art as Religious Studies (ed. Douglas Adams and Diane Apostolos-Cappadona; Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1987), 3-11, esp. 8.

[15] Robin Jensen, The Substance of Things Seen, 97.

[16] Adams and Apostolos-Cappadona Apostolos-Cappadona, "Art as Religious Studies," 4-5.

[17] ARTstor ( ) provides access to over 500,000 digital images, including artistic works and images of material culture, and CAMIO ( ) provides access to over 90,000 images. Most museum websites have online collections which are searchable by artist's last name or by title.

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Citation: Dan Clanton Jr. , Lynn R. Huber, " The Bible and Art," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2007]. Online:


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