One of the most interesting things I saw in Venice was Saint Mark’s church. It was built not long after Venice was founded in the 700s AD. They expanded it four hundred years later, but it still has the same basically novel design.Most old Catholic churches in Italy are designed like old pagan Roman temples, because that’s what the Christians of the day were used to. In fact, some churches were old temples converted to the new religion. But Venice, as a centre of international trade, had a lot of contact with the outside world, especially the east. So this church resembled more a Greek Orthodox church like you’d find in Turkey or Egypt than a Catholic building, with it’s several high domes, golden mosaics on the roof and complex altar arrangement. It was the mosaics that most caught my eye.
The mosaics on the roof told the story of the New Testament, from Jesus’ birth to Pentecost. It was normal for churches to tell Bible stories with paintings, glass windows or mosaics because most church-goers in the Middle Ages couldn’t read. So instead, they went to church and saw the Bible stories, similar to a modern graphic novel.
But it wasn’t normal for the emphasis to be so entirely on the entire gospel like this. Most of the Catholic art we’d seen so far had been “Archangel Gabriel and Mary”, “Mary and Baby Jesus”, “Mary with Jesus’s body”, “Judgement Day- Heaven and Hell”, “Jesus Crucified” or various Old Testament stories like David, Moses or Noah. We had never seen a church that set out to just tell you the gospel story, from beginning to end.
And that is important. What we show in our artwork shows what we think is important. Catholic art has a lot more depictions of Mary than Protestant art because she is a far more important to Catholics. Our art shows our heart.
And the gospels lie at the heart of Christianity. Everything before it (Noah, Moses and David) lead up to it. Everything after it (Judgement Day) points back to it. The gospel is central to Christianity. And not just “key parts” of the gospel either- Jesus born, Jesus killed, Jesus resurrected, or all that plus all the bits with Mary in them. The whole gospel is central to the Christian faith.
It’s not enough to explain the gospel as “Jesus came to save us from our sins”. Jesus did not explain his life that way. He walked around Palestine saying “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”. To know what the Kingdom of God is, to even know it exists, we need the whole gospel story, with the whole Bible story behind it.
The Kingdom of God is a complex thing and I don’t think I can fully do it justice here or even fully understand it myself. But the kingdom of God is where things are done God’s way. It means the forgiveness of sins. It means healing the sick, caring for the poor and broken-hearted, embracing the outcast, being a father to the fatherless and bringing justice and mercy to where there is wrongdoing and legalism. It means bringing light where there is darkness, and salt and truth where there is nothingness. It’s not a place or a political entity like the Jews thought, or an organisation with hierarchies and power-plays like the disciples thought. It is the family of God living as the body of Christ every day, in everything.
What does this look like? How does it work? How can we join it? How can we do it? To answer all these questions, and not just one or two of them, we need the whole Bible, and like St. Mark’s church, highlighting the whole gospel is a good place to start.