The arts are an integral part of human experience. They enable people to express ideas, beliefs and feelings and to experience the world in ways they have not done before. The arts have played a central rather than a peripheral role in the development of civilisations. They form part of a complex structure of beliefs and rituals, and moral and social codes. The arts provide us with ways of looking at ourselves and of imagining our future. The visual arts often communicate more strongly than language, and frequently aim to make statements of a didactic or morally instructive kind.
The arts have always been an essential aspect of the language of the Christian tradition. Visual images, in particular, have provided the most immediate and direct communication of messages about Christian piety and the participation of human beings in Christian worship. The arts transcend the barriers of geography and language and, in a sense, offer an immediate form of instruction. Visual images representing the divine, scriptural and historical characters not only presented a model for the worshipper's attitudes and emotions but also provided an intensity of engagement designed to aid and improve prayer.
For illiterate people, the visual images on the walls and ceilings of churches were the primary ‘media' of instruction until at least the sixteenth century. For medieval worshippers who could not read, had scant catechetical instruction, and frequently could not hear in a large church, visual images both formed a major part of their religious initiation and informed their faith. The visual images of different historical periods record the developing nature of theology and point to changes in the artistic development of people. Many artists presented changes in theological teachings in the concrete form of their work of art.
The arts not only attract attention but also instruct viewers with their powerful and incisive moral and social comments. Miles (1985) notes that during the time of the martyrs, visual images portrayed peaceful alternatives to the violence experienced by many people. On the other hand, social comment is not always appreciated. For example, when Rembrandt first depicted old people as elderly, his contemporaries were shocked. Rembrandt showed the viewers a more realistic truth than they wanted to see. Sometimes a new style or a new work of art appears more offensive when it challenges the boundaries of convention thereby appearing to threaten the psychological order and the status quo of society, and expressing a level of reality different from that of the accepted social consciousness (Laeuchli, 1980).