Book Review: 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know by Terry Glaspey

Whenever I meet new people and they ask what I do, I always tell them I’m a writer on Christianity and the arts (even though my primary income source is freelance copyediting and proofreading). The follow-up question is often, “Oh, are you an artist?,” to which I respond with something like “No, but I love to study art, and I want to make Christians aware of the church’s rich artistic heritage.”

When I read the introduction to Terry Glaspey’s latest book—75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Baker Books, 2015)—I couldn’t believe how much like me it sounds! Not because Glaspey has lifted anything I’ve written or vice versa but because we share the same desire to see Christians more educated about art, especially art that’s rooted in the Christian tradition.

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In this full-color survey, Glaspey—curator and tour guide—invites us to be “inspired, entertained, and challenged” as we encounter artists’ material witness to their faith through the ages. An Orthodox icon, a Renaissance altarpiece, a metaphysical poetry collection, a jazz suite, a rock album, children’s fantasy stories, an Italian neorealist film, a radio drama, and contemporary nihonga are just some of the many creative works featured. Organized chronologically from the Roman catacomb paintings to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, the book encompasses almost all the major artistic disciplines (dance is conspicuously absent) and a variety of styles and eras, with a focus on Western art. (Sadao Watanabe’s Last Supper stencil print and Japanese American artist Makoto Fujimura’s illuminated Gospels project are the only two Eastern/Eastern-influenced works.) I’m impressed by how fluent Glaspey is in each area. He can speak just as easily about silent film as he can about Gothic architecture and contemporary folk art!

The author says his selection process was guided by these criteria:

  1. works that are universally esteemed for their craftsmanship and creativity, not only admired by Christians but also by those outside the faith
  2. works that stand up well to repeated exposure, the kind of art that can be visited again and again, because there is always something new to discover
  3. works that speak to people across time, cultures, national boundaries, and denominational divides

Preempting readers’ tendencies to object to certain omissions, Glaspey adds,

This is most emphatically not a list of the absolute best or greatest works, nor does it imply any ranking system. Instead, it attempts to represent the breadth and depth of what Christians have accomplished in the arts, and is an intentionally quirky mix of the widely known and the mostly unknown.

Each of the seventy-five entries contains not only discussion of the content, formal qualities, and historical context of the highlighted work but also an overview of the artist’s oeuvre and a mini spiritual biography. These are not generic glosses or rote info dumps. On the contrary, Glaspey devotes individualized care to each one in the space of about four pages, giving us both concision and substance. He likens his offerings to movie trailers: they are meant to give you a sense of the artwork’s flavor and entice you to explore it more fully on your own.

La Sagrada Familia ceiling
Ceiling detail of La Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona, designed by Antoni Gaudí, begun 1882.

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