A Journey into Christian Art

By Helen de Borchgrave
Fortress. 1999. 223 pp. $35. ISBN 0-8006-3240-0

Reviewed by Sam Stone, Raleigh, N.C.


On this journey into classical Christian art, readers will not find themselves laden with the baggage of an in-depth history of art nor a catalogue of the greatest works from around the world. Helen de Borchgrave's book rather invites the reader to join her knowledgeable, guided tour of art treasures in sites close to their origin.

De Borchgrave is an art conservator living in London. To her credit, she has taken a large step back from the meticulous details and forensic tools of art conservation to adopt the perspective of a curator and art critic. Moreover, on most every page she wears the mantle of a devoted Christian disciple.

Other than to say, almost in passing, in the Introduction that the works selected for presentation are those of “artists of faith,” de Borchgrave never pauses to dig further for a definition of Christian art. The breadth and significance of the field is assumed to be known and limited, of course, to the visual arts.

One might criticize the author for selecting works that can be found only in Europe and for favoring the Roman Catholic contributions to art. The weight of history, however, supports her choices. This is not a field in which Protestants can claim much in the way of bragging rights.

This is not to say that readers must have prior knowledge of classical art before reading this book. To the contrary, the journey as conducted by de Borchgrave is most accessible. One might begin reading at any point in the 10 chapters which run chronologically through the 2,000-year span.

From the wall-paintings in the catacombs of Rome in the first chapter to the all-too-brief excursion into the 20th century in the final chapter, de Borchgrave quickly sets the historical and theological context for the art presented. Along the way, interesting material can be found for sermon illustrations or study groups.

A prime example is her ch. 8, entitled “Two Sides of the Christian Coin,” in which Roman Catholic and early Protestant, especially Calvinist, views are contrasted. The focal point is Holland, where the transition from Rubens to Rembrandt is recounted in a lively fashion. De Borchgrave concludes, “they expressed Catholic exuberance and Protestant austerity in their work, yet shared a common belief in the risen Christ” (p. 162).

Such crossroads in art and theological history could be explored by a church group using the Journey as a literal tour guide. The four indices at the end of the book offer a helpful resource — one listing the places where the art discussed can be found, a bibliography for each chapter, a list of illustrations and a standard subject index.

Fortress has produced a book of museum-catalogue quality with full-color reproductions of the paintings and photography.