Part 15 in the Series:
The Bezalel Blueprint
By Don Enevoldsen
Christian bookstores usually have a section with a variety of Christian art. Most of it is predictable. There will be a variety of paintings and photographs, each with a Bible verse prominently displayed somewhere in the design. There will be some images of praying hands, in both painting and statuary. A multitude of crosses will be incorporated in every imaginable form, all with heavy-handed symbolic import. What will be almost entirely lacking is subtlety.
The part of the store that most has disturbed me over the years is the clothing selection. A wide variety of T-shirts display clumsy cleverness. In the seventies, it was in vogue to parody popular advertising slogans. A Coca-Cola logo with the caption “It’s the Real Thing” was changed to read “Jesus is the Real Thing.” “Gold’s Gym” became “God’s Gym.”
I’m happy to say that Christian design has maintained a consistent theme. Today, the SubWay logo is altered to read “HisWay.” “Star Wars” has become “Soul Wars.” There are T-shirts for “iPray” and “Major League Believer.” The art of Christian design has certainly been enduring.
Please don’t misunderstand, especially if you own any of those T-shirts. They are clever. I’ve worn some of them myself. What bothers me is that the summit of Christian art has become the ability to mimic secular marketing—not exactly the Sistine Chapel. One hopes that artists, upon becoming believers, will be impacted by the scriptures. Unfortunately the primary impact seems to be Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Of all the artists I have studied in my life, until recently I’ve given Bezalel only passing notice. In fact, I’ve given him little attention even as a Bible character. Yet Bezalel held a position of great importance in the history of Israel.
I’m not alone. Very few have really given Bezalel much consideration as an artist. Perhaps that is because so little is said about him. I suspect, however, that the reason is more likely because of the nature of his task. He was given instructions, like a blueprint, and he built what he was given, a sort of paint by number project. Within the ghetto of modern Christian art, following the instructions is frequently equated with creativity. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Bezalel did exercise considerable creativity.
The degree of creative talent might not be apparent from a quick glance, but Exodus 31:4 distinctly states that Bezalel was chosen and filled with the Spirit, with wisdom, understanding and knowledge so that he could “make artistic designs.”
“Make” in this case is the word chashab. It means to think, plan, esteem, calculate, invent, imagine. To invent or devise is a creative exercise. The fact that Bezalel was given many instructions for the building of the Tabernacle should not blind us to the fact that within the framework of God’s instructions, there was room for creative design, that is, for originality of thought or the ability to create. There is a difference between creating a design and executing someone else’s design. The most difficult kind of creativity is developing originality within someone else’s scheme.
Artists are faced with this challenge more often than most probably realize. A screenwriter, for example, can write pretty much anything he wants, but if he wants the screenplay to actually get made, he must consider the prevailing limits of the art form. Generally, he must understand the three-act structure, and character arc. He must understand the desires of the potential audience. If he is wise, he will have some idea of the marketing challenges faced by the producer. These and numerous other considerations play into the production of a film and the writer who ignores them will likely not be very successful.
My wife, Christina, had an interior design business for many years. She still does some work with friends and acquaintances. I used to think the creativity of interior design was in coordinating colors and textures and arranging things in a creative fashion. After watching how Christina works, I’ve realized that there are stern restrictions on how that creativity is expressed.
The first thing Christina does when working with a client is to talk. The purpose of the conversation is to learn the client’s taste, style preference, likes and dislikes. She works within the framework of another person’s desires.
Once those preferences are understood, Christina engages her creativity to make a unique and creative design. A significant part of the art is understanding the boundaries and how to work within them. Those restrictions, however, do not limit in any way the need for creativity. If anything, artists with predetermined blueprints are likely to be among the most creative.
Bezalel was given a specific pattern to build. Within that blueprint, he and his team of artists and craftsmen were responsible for “making” designs. Those designs include all the details that are not included in the biblical text.
Just how much those designs can vary is seen by comparing just a handful of illustrations of the Ark of the Covenant. All will have two cherubim on top facing in toward each other. However, that’s where the similarity stops. Some of the cherubim will have abstract faces with no features. Some will be very human faces. Some will have the bearded face of the ancient mythological figures that are part human, part lion, part eagle or part ox. Some will have wings that point straight toward the opposite cherub, like arms stretched out. Some will have wings that curve elegantly over the figure’s heads. Some will have wings that point generally upward.
The artistic ability in designing these figures would have shown in the continuity of style throughout the entire Tabernacle. An artist designs all the pieces to fit together as a whole. An artist would not likely put an early American log cabin chair with a Hollywood Regency coffee table. Unless the specific pieces actually did work, but a good artist can make that creative call.
The point is that being a great artist requires creativity. However, placing parameters for the project should not be seen as a limit to creativity. I have too often seen the word “Christian” attached to “artist” in a way that limits creativity to a narrow focus of Bible oriented concepts and presentations. The Bezalel artist should always strive to connect with an audience by whatever means works effectively, communicating without alienating—and that will always require the ability to be creative.
Of course, just to make sure people always know you’re a Christian artist, you could sign your work with the “intel inside” logo, but with the words “Jesus inside.” That should get their attention. At least they’ll know you did it “HisWay.”
Next, Part 16: Good Work and Good Works
Go to the beginning of the series, The Bezalel Blueprint: Part 1, The Artist Bezalel
Do you have an additional thought on this subject? Please join the discussion and share your insights.