For Professor Matthew Milliner, the crucial role that art has played in church history provides hope for the future.
- Get sleep
- Don’t overprep
- Let them talk, too
This mantra, printed on two-by-four white cardstock, hangs on a plastic window frame in Matthew Milliner’s office on the second floor of Adams Hall. The art history professor’s ornate, eclectic office bursts with artistic details, from a gallery wall featuring Byzantine and Medieval art to article clippings taped to a bookshelf and dried flowers sandwiched between painted Virgin Mary candles.
The iconography of Mary has long been a source of inspiration and scholarship for Milliner, who teaches a popular course about Jesus’s mother at Wheaton with New Testament Professor Amy Peeler and whose book on the subject, “Mother of the Lamb: The Story of a Global Icon,” was released on Oct. 4.
The book, which arose out of Milliner’s dissertation at Princeton, where he studied art and theology, attempts to refute scholars who have emphasized the role of Marian icons in religious wars. Milliner asserts that such images, though used in battle, have also and often been used to express a disdain for violence and a longing for peace.
Milliner writes about how Christians responded to the crusades, a series of religious wars between Christians and Muslims meant to secure control of holy sites considered sacred by both groups, with images of Mary holding the baby Jesus with symbols of the crucifixion present in the background. He charts the progression of this icon — called “Our Lady of Perpetual Help” in Catholic tradition, and “Virgin of the Passion” in Eastern Orthodox — from its conception to the present day.
“The book is an attempt to use the discipline of art history to dispute those who would say, ‘Christianity is just about corruption, war and violence,’” Milliner said. “…there is a deeper and bigger story.”
According to Peter Brown, a history professor at Princeton, Milliner’s scholarship, though centered on the past, has relevance for the contemporary world. “It challenges the reader,” Brown writes in his blurb, “to give thought to what its serene, sad lines and gracious posture might yet have to say to our own times.”
“In the long run of Church history, contemplative silence and suffering love is the more interesting and pervasive story ,” Milliner said. “In the case of art history, I’m able to prove that.”
Soonmin Kwon, a senior communications major, who has taken multiple art history courses with Milliner, excitedly awaited the release of Milliner’s new book ever since reading his 2021 book, “The Everlasting People: G. K. Chesterton and the First Nations,” which was based on a series of lectures Milliner gave at the Wade Center as part of the Center’s annual Hansen Lectures.
“I’m even more hyped to read because it’s in his area of expertise,” Kwon said. “I had the copy in my hand during office hours with him, and I was like, ‘Yo, that’s even thicker than “The Everlasting People!’”
Kwon emphasized Milliner’s strength as a teacher and a scholar.
“Wheaton is special enough, but Milliner makes it even more special,” Kwon said. “It’s already good, but Milliner makes it super.”
The Necessity of Art History
Milliner, who graduated from Wheaton in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in art history, has built a reputation for his passionate, theatrical style of lecturing since joining Wheaton’s faculty in 2011. Although his suit and bowtie garb matches well with academia, Milliner teaches with the energy of a coach out of his seat on the sidelines. He rarely stands still, often pacing the front of the classroom, brown curls bouncing in the projector’s shadow. He usually teaches his History of Art & Architecture and Medieval & Byzantine Art courses in the lecture hall on the third floor of Adams, where during Lent he sometimes presides over prayer meetings with students and faculty.
The room is like a larger-scale version of Milliner’s office. It’s dim and cluttered, with a corner adorned with various Christian icons from the Byzantine and Medieval traditions, as well as some imitations inspired by the modern global church. Everything about the room, like the professor and his office, echoes tradition and history. When you fold up the desk portion of some of the chairs, there’s a silhouette of Milliner’s face on the flip side. To students, it seems, he is already an icon.
When asked why Wheaton students should study art history, a field sometimes characterized as interesting yet impractical, Milliner closed his eyes behind his horn-rimmed glasses, crossed his legs and leaned deep into the mesh chair in his office.
“Because the world doesn’t want them to,” he said. “Because the world wants you to be satiated by Netflix for the rest of your life, languished into a stupor where the world tells you whatever it wants and weaves its web that you’ll be trapped in.”
Though he is a regular Twitter and Instagram user (@millinerd), posting his favorite passages from theological books, publicly corresponding with colleagues and offering personal reflections, Milliner is wary of social media, or what he calls, “mediated reality.”
“Art history,” he said, “will release you from that so your eyes will be more captivated by the beauty of the Christian church than by whatever some Silicon Valley web designer has come up with.”
He emphasized that throughout much of Christian history, artists did not fixate on how their works would appear on a gallery wall, but focused on creating art as a way to commune with God.
For that reason, Milliner views the recent defunding of arts programs by Christian liberal arts colleges as a catastrophe. He maintains that by capitulating to market pressures and emphasizing quick returns on investments for students, Christian institutions deprive themselves of their own rich history, failing to train the next generation in the Christian visual splendor of the past.
Milliner, who has written about art for general interest readers in the New York Times and Comment Magazine, also said he believes in the utility of art history for more technical reasons, referencing Times articles written by doctors who stress art history’s impact on their practice. After closely observing paintings in an art history course, Dhruv Khullar, a physician in New York City, recalled being better able to recognize medical symptoms in his patients, such as the different shades of blisters and the contours of pneumonia.
Milliner suggests exercising caution when determining something’s value.
“The liberal arts cannot be tethered too tightly to exterior pressure,” he said with a sigh, addressing the parental pressure sometimes put on students wanting to study art or the humanities. “When they are, they become the servile arts. You don’t study Dante so you can get a job. You study Dante so you can be a better human in that job when you get it.”
He classifies an undergraduate education as a privilege, a time of respite before entering a world of career and market pressures.
“There will come a day where you will not have the luxury of taking a course on Emily Dickinson or studying chemistry for the mystery of the way chemicals interact,” Milliner said. “The day will come when you must simply make shampoo.”
An evangelical church siphoned from art
Milliner’s beliefs about art are not constrained to the seminar room. As a Christian, he wants evangelical churches to embrace architecture and art as methods of proclaiming the gospel. Most church architects no longer orient buildings toward the rising sun to evoke the resurrection, lacking the tradition of eastward orientation dating back to the earliest church buildings in Christian history. In addition, modern buildings often lack windows with pointed arches pointing upward to the heavens. Likewise, fluorescent lights that flip on and off have replaced candles that evoke the light of Christ.
“The critic would say, ‘Right, because we spend our money on more important things, like bringing people to Christ or helping the poor,”’ Milliner said. “But I simply want to say, ‘Yeah, but when you bring people to Christ and help the poor, don’t you want to lay out a feast for them?”’
This “feast,” to Milliner, is a visual banquet within church structures that points to a creative God who delights in splendor.
Architecture played a role in the church that Milliner and his family decided to attend in Wheaton. All Souls Anglican Church, located two miles northwest of campus on Jewell Rd. near Cosley Zoo, displays a painted replica of the frescoes inside the Basilica of St. Clement in Rome.
There are differences between the original and the replica. The walls of All Souls depict an image of Jesus similar to the one in St. Clement, but oak trees from suburban Wheaton surround the scene instead of the vines of ancient Rome.
“Why shouldn’t your theology be informed by the beauty of your environment, which is suburban Wheaton?” Milliner said.
Milliner, who spent his early Christian years in the Reformed tradition, said he found the Anglican emphasis on beauty appealing. Even so, he’s quick to say that he owes much of his faith to other traditions. Growing up, his parents did not attend church but would sometimes drop him and his sister off at a Catholic church for Sunday school. At the age of 15, through the youth group of a Methodist church in his home state of New Jersey, he finally heard the gospel in a way that he could understand. He credits the evangelical movement, with its emphasis on renewal, for making his conversion possible.
“They gave me a faith that could then mature,” Milliner said. “I’ve since thickened it, not discarded it.”
That “thickening” has taken place over decades. Milliner said that part of this growth occurred during his graduate studies at Princeton, which included extended stays in Greece, specifically in Thessaloniki, and a year in Cyprus.
In Greece and Cyprus, Milliner witnessed a renewal of what he described as a quiet, humble, confident and spiritually deep Christianity that emerged from a state of political corruption.
When the more eastern form of Christianity faced an external political crisis, he said, their Christian faith grew stronger. Such revelations will unlikely make for best-selling books, according to Milliner, because people often prefer the bombastic drama of gossipy church strife and corrupted leaders to quieter stories of faithfulness. A Christianity co-opted by political movements on the right and the left in the United States are a major concern for Millner, but he continues to hope and believe in a future for the church.
“Politically compromised Christianity is real,” Milliner said. “But, what is less talked about are the subtle stirrings of Christian renewal on this very campus, and such awakenings are in fact quite normal in the history of Christian tradition.”
Milliner says he hopes his book will help Christians better understand how their brothers and sisters in the past looked to Christ and the Virgin Mary to give them confidence in God and peace in their hearts in times of trouble. His book emerged from decades of research and prayer, and he hopes God will use it.
“It kind of fell into my lap,” Milliner said. “And I think, I hope, that that was the Lord saying, ‘This is the story I want to tell. You need to tell it.’ That’s the hope. It could just be my choice and I hope God honors that choice, but it felt to me bigger than that. I’m hoping it was my obedience to a call to tell this story.”