Lisa De Boer on Learning to Appreciate Liturgical Art

Lisa De Boer teaches art and art history at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. She’s been researching the role of visual arts in North American churches. In this edited conversation, she talks about learning to appreciate worship art that doesn’t match a personal ideal.


Lisa De Boer teaches art and art history at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. She’s been researching the role of visual arts in North American churches. In this edited conversation, she talks about learning to appreciate worship art that doesn’t match a personal ideal.

Do you have an ideal for how art should be used in worship?

Long term, I don’t have a personal ideal. There is so much variety in the Protestant world. Things that I simply will not resonate with—because of who I am and how I’ve been trained and my confessional background—are perfectly appropriate in a different setting. Just because I don’t like a certain use of art doesn’t mean it can’t be done well by someone else in a different place. I have had examples in my own life where I have felt everything coming together in profound ways, but that’s not a formula I could reproduce or impose on anybody else.

Do you have a story about how you learned to appreciate a piece of liturgical art?

Yes. We all have to grow in appreciating art, just as we all have to grow as individuals. For two years I taught at Valparaiso University, a Lutheran school in Valparaiso, Indiana. They have a beautiful, enormous chapel in the center of their campus, like a modern cathedral. It’s called Chapel of the Resurrection and has a very beautiful use of light.

When you face forward, you see brick walls. When you walk to the front and take communion and turn to go back to your seat, the walls dissolve into panels of glass. That’s done very intentionally to use materials and space and light to create that sense of before and after every time you take communion. I was comfortable with the stained glass windows behind the altar. But, I remember when I first came to Valparaiso and started going to daily chapel, I was bothered by this enormous sculpture in the front of the sanctuary.

Why did that sculpture bother you?

It was a Christus Rex, so it’s a cross with the risen Christ on it. It’s abstract, it’s gold, it’s huge—which it has to be, to be proportionate to the space. I remember not knowing where to look. I was not comfortable withsuch an enormous piece of liturgical art right smack dab in the center of my vision, and I couldn’t make it go away.

What bothered me, vaguely, as I first inhabited the main sanctuary, was the apparent triumphalism of that image. Of course, I assent to the fact that the resurrection is the greatest victory of all time—over space and sin and death and everything. But yet there’s suffering that we can’t deny and that doesn’t go away and that, as Christians, we’re called to. I couldn’t see that in the Christus Rex.

What changed?

Over time, as I became familiar with the pattern of worship there in that Lutheran community, and, as I gained familiarity with the space of the chapel as a whole, I learned how to use it. I figured out how the whole building works. An important component of that Christux Rex is actually not visible to people who don’t know the building.  

Underneath the apse is Gloria Christi Chapel, a smaller space suitable for meditation and more intimate services. And in it is a very moving, and tortured, image of Christ on the cross. It is abstract, graphic, and powerful, yet not glittery, huge, or triumphant at all. When you look at the Christus Rex in the main sanctuary, but know about the sculpture beneath it in the crypt chapel, then those two images work together, seen and unseen in that church.

How did they work together for you?

Over the course of my time at Valparaiso, I learned how to use the sculptures in the chapels…and not be bothered or distracted by them, “distracted” being the classic Protestant critique of liturgical art. I learned how to see the Christus Rex as a tuning fork, where both poles resonate but they give one pitch.

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