Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories Behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film. Ada, MI: Baker Books, 2015. 382 pp.
There are books that challenge us to visit1,000 Places to See Before You Die and 1,000 Places to See in the United States; to travel on 1,000 Adventures; and to make time for 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. But a collection of 1,000 titles is just that — a list of books or places to visit that includes the stellar and not-so-worthwhile. Bucket lists of goals like these are commendable, but how about a more manageable list that helps to navigate through 2,000 years of culture and offers instruction about the minds behind the greatest masterpieces in literature, art, and culture? Terry Glaspey’s book, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories Behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film will furnish the reader with not only standout titles in literature, but also other artists who contribute meaning to our culture through visual art, music, and film.
75 Masterpieces offers a helpful guide through the landscape of the arts to understand what is truly significant. The masterpieces are given in chronological order beginning with the paintings in Roman catacombs from 300 A.D. and concluding with a 2011 film by Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life. He chooses familiar examples like Vincent van Gogh’s post-impressionist work Starry Night, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. The scope of selections works together to give the reader an informative overview of the influence of Christianity on art, literature, music, and film.
Each selection stands as a cultural marker and a testimony to the faith of its creator. Glaspey dedicates three to five pages for each work, revealing the important facts about the artist, when and where the piece was created, and why it is a timeless representation of inspired creativity. The strength of the book is its deftly written text that avoids a complicated fine arts vocabulary. Even readers without prior fine arts knowledge can easily understand its storytelling style.
But why pick up this book in the first place? Indeed, why study the arts and humanities? Because 75 Masterpieces helps us understand music, literature, film, and art that opens the mind to the wonder that surrounds us. For hundreds of years, churches have drifted away from valuing beauty and imagination. In our postmodern culture, art has become autonomous and individualized, making a personal statement at the viewer rather than encouraging someone to experience the work in a transcendent way. Today’s art, many times rife with controversial subjects, creates division between the culture and the church. One of the biggest contributors to our ignorance of the arts is that we simply haven’t been taught the fundamental information that would lead to understanding. We might comprehend the message of “Amazing Grace,” by John Newton (a featured item in the book), but reading about Newton’s back story and what led him to write the song brings new meaning to this old hymn. When we gaze at Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, observing riotous swirls of blue, yellow, and black, it is difficult for us to imagine why van Gogh painted in such rough brush strokes. 75 Masterpieces answers the ‘whys and hows’ of van Gogh’s story as well as those of the composer Mendelssohn, author C. S. Lewis, film director Roberto Rossellini, and other creative minds who have influenced culture through the centuries.
The book offers well-known cultural icons. For example, Italy’s famous Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo (1508-1512) is included with its interesting backstory. Michelangelo saw himself as a sculptor, not a painter. Pope Julius II requested he create a “spectacular tomb by which the pope might be remembered.” Due to a possible combination of an “uncharacteristic twinge of humility on the part of the proud Julius” or mounting costs, the project was canceled and Michelangelo left Italy in disgust. He was rehired to paint figures in the Sistine Chapel, but “begged and pleaded to be excused from the task.” Eventually, he acquiesced and set up special scaffolding to enable him to paint this study of Old Testament stories on the ceiling. The romantic tale that he created this work while lying on his back? It’s a myth.
Glaspey also includes unfamiliar people who played a significant role in the development of the arts. A fascinating inclusion to the book is Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) who wrote the Ordo Virutum, the first musical drama in history. This morality play set to music paved the way for the Everyman genre that would become common in the 14th century. Hildegard was an abbess, author, artist, composer, and doctor at a time in history when women played a secondary role in society. Like many Christian artists, Hildegard was a nature mystic, seeing God revealed in nature and at work in His created world. “All living creatures are sparks from the radiation of God’s brilliance,” she wrote, “and these sparks emerge from God like the rays of the sun … God cannot be seen but is known through the divine creation, just as our body cannot be seen because of our clothing.” Glaspey describes her noteworthy contributions to culture include music, books, and even herbal remedies and discoveries in biology and botany, showing the reader that Hildegard is a key figure in history and in 75 Masterpieces.
Singer and poet Bob Dylan is surprising addition to a book about artistic masterpieces. In his long career, Dylan’s been called a folksinger, protest singer, and rock-and-roll surrealist poet, but few know that he has also been a “fiery Christian evangelist, and always — this is the one consistent trait — a moralist in the tradition of the biblical prophets.” Dylan wrote three albums that were defined as gospel and even after this creative stage passed, “he continued to write from a perspective that recognized God as a necessary reality for making sense of the world.” Glaspey adds additional fascinating details about Dylan’s life and his album Infidels, showing God’s influence where we don’t expect to find it.
Glaspey includes several other musicians and bands in his survey — U2, Johnny Cash, John Coltrane, and Mahalia Jackson. Unfortunately, unless the reader is familiar with the lyrics to the selected songs, the reasons behind the inclusion of these artists is unclear. It would have been helpful to include at least a portion of the lyrics to a particular standout song instead of only listing song titles that require the reader to conduct an online search. Another shortcoming with the book was, despite the inclusion of literary works starting from 1900, the lack of attention during that time period to the visual arts with only four paintings and one sculpture featured.
Perhaps this is a commentary on the lack of artists in the 20th century who take their inspiration from personal faith – our culture’s move from the spiritual to the secular over the past one hundred years. If so, that should be noted and acknowledged. That should also be a call for the faithful to re-engage in the arts. Because of the increasing secularization of art, music, literature, and music, the church has willingly given up on the chance to be an influence, so we’ve lost an opportunity to be part of the creative community. 75 Masterpieces can be our open door and guiding light to educate ourselves back into the arts community.
Of course, 75 Masterpieces is as much personal opinion of the author as any of the aforementioned “1,000” books, but Glaspey doesn’t claim to have the final say on the worthiness of the selections he has included. He invites us to use this book as a “departure point for your own journey of exploration,” emphasizing that this is not a list that he deems as the absolute greatest works in history. He is interested in giving the reader “the breadth and depth of what Christians have accomplished in the arts and is an intentionally quirky mix of the widely known and mostly unknown.” Glaspey’s vision extends beyond simply educating humanities novices; his 75 Masterpieces encourages even those who already love the arts to find new ways of relating masterpieces to the world around them, inspiring the reader to see beauty inspired by our Creator God in a new light.