Christian Art Inspired by the Scientific Revolution

I’ve been up to my eyeballs in the history of the natural sciences over the past several weeks, doing research for my forthcoming book on science and faith (formal announcement and further details to come after the publisher has officially nailed down the title and release date). Intellectual history is an exciting aspect of my academic discipline; it’s invigorating to trace big ideas back through the ages and see the timelessness and persistence of truth. The millennia-old intersection between science and theology is rife with examples of this.

Interestingly, we often see these important ideas creatively celebrated. One delightful surprise during my research of the 16th-19th centuries has been the discovery of Christian art that was inspired by the enormous strides being made in the scientific understanding of the natural world. Just as many of the greatest mathematical, philosophical, and theological thinkers of those centuries saw the new insights into the material creation as bringing glory to God, so did painters, poets, and musicians. Sometimes, the artists were scientists themselves! (In a future post, I’ll profile a scientist-poet.)

One example of science inspiring art made a deep impression upon me this past week.

boyleRobert Boyle (1627-1691), the “father of chemistry” who is credited with the modern experimental method, was a devout Christian of the Anglican tradition. He argued that the “first act of religion” is the study of nature, and he followed Johannes Kepler and others in referring to the universe as a great temple of God in which man is a priest, working to illuminate nature’s divine mysteries. In a 1665 book entitled Occasional Reflections Upon Several Subjects, Boyle expresses his amazement with the fact that, despite its extraordinary complexity (which he knew firsthand from doing dissections!), the human body can operate correctly for long periods of time. However, when one part falls into disharmony with the rest, illness results. He compares the body with a many-stringed yet finely-tuned musical instrument. He writes: 

 …an Instrument with above a thousand strings (if there were any such) should frequently be out of tune, especially since the bare change of air may as well discompose the body of a man, as untune some of the strings of such an Instrument; so that ev’n the inimitable structure of human bodies is scarce more admirable, than that such curious and elaborate engines can be so contriv’d, as not to be oftner out of order than they are; the preservation of so nice and exact a frame being the next wonder to its Workmanship.          

                                                                          Section II, Meditation I 

Hymn writer, logician, and theologian, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was struck by Boyle’s words of wonder, and wrote a hymn honoring them:

When I with pleasing wonder stand

And all my frame survey

Lord, ’tis thy work, I own thy hand

Thus built my humble clay

Our life contains a thousand springs, 

And dies if one be gone.

Strange that a harp of thousand strings

Should keep in tune so long.

Composer William Billings composed music for Watts’ lyrics and included the hymn, Creation, in his final collection, published in 1794.

Stay tuned (pun intended) for future posts on how the natural sciences have inspired works of art, particularly painting, sculpture, and poetry. In the meantime, for your listening pleasure: