During the Middle Ages church art provided most of the images an average European saw in a lifetime. It was virtually the only visual medium available to the masses—today’s Internet, television, film and print media together in one venue. Even after the invention of the printing press, when Christians prayed with texts—psalms, parables and memorable passages from Scripture and other religious classics—they continued to use images in meditation and prayer. Private chapels in aristocratic homes contained at least one art object, typically a painting or statue. Christians of means also bought small icons, portable enough to take with them and use regularly. When a literate middle class gradually developed, it adopted such devotions.
Today, some of the greatest Christian art remains in churches, mostly in Europe, but much has been acquired by museums around the world. Following the example of our ancestors in the faith, why not use the great treasury of Christian art as a source of prayer, meditation and devotion?
A friend who visited a state-owned art museum in Moscow not long ago was surprised to observe people kneeling, bowing their heads and praying reverently in public before the icons and other Christian works on display. Some worshipers left a flower or a candle on the floor beside a work. Apparently such gestures are commonplace. That these Christians had encountered the art outside a church seemed to matter not at all, since the art itself was seen in that culture and among the Orthodox as worthy of veneration.
Our culture, by contrast, tends to fragment experience, keeping each different type discretely in its place. As a result we may turn off religious sensibility in the workplace and in public, and turn it on at church or another explicitly religious event. Still, religious experience can break through to us in art.
On first seeing Vincent van Gogh’s paintings from Arles, an extensive collection exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in New York many years ago, I was nearly overcome, responding viscerally, even physically, to the works. It was as though the artist had presented what a resurrected world would look like, and—this was my big insight on that occasion—it was our world. I rushed into a nearby church to sit in the silence and ponder what I had seen. Because of the huge crowds, it had not occurred to me at the time that I might pray at the museum.
On Good Friday several years ago, I toured the Met’s European galleries looking at crucifixion scenes, purposely seeking an image to jolt me into comprehending the meaning of the day. Looking closely on scene after scene, gazing as a believer, not as an art critic or as an art student, provided a nourishing spiritual experience. Some of the rooms were empty and quiet. A few had seating, where I could be still and linger. To extend the time inconspicuously, I jotted my thoughts on a pad, a ruse as well as a tool, to help me focus at length on the one or two paintings that held me in thrall. Since then, I have planned similar visits, especially during Advent/Christmas, Lent and Easter, and recommend the practice to all. Underlying the practice is a belief that art can engage a viewer in a powerful, visual way, and thereby mediate God’s spirit.
Most cities and large towns have an art museum, and most museums have at least one painting or sculpture suitable for Christian reflection. Someone in a remote area or housebound could look online or at printed art reproductions in books. The point is to observe a work of art closely, slowly, and to let it shape one’s thoughts, senses and reflection.
Some may prefer to spend time before an image, focused and still at a museum, and then head to a nearby church for quiet prayer. To do so, however, incurs the risk of breaking concentration and losing the image and its gifts. One might also try the reverse: praying at home with a print or online image before going to a museum to see the original work. An original displays the actual canvas the artist used (size makes an impact, whether big or small); it reveals a painter’s brush strokes (or a sculptor’s chisel, rivet, weld or knot), the artist’s signature, the ravages of time or the benefits of a recent restoration. It is the inimitable real thing, complete (sometimes) with mistakes.
Selecting an Image
Since one does not stand before art as at a blank slate, one must begin where one is. I have walked through a gallery with Christ’s passion seared into my mind, having just come from Mass or a prayer service steeped in music and homilies on social justice; I have found art showing Jesus’ birth and boyhood to be newly profound, seen retrospectively from the vantage point of his death. Similarly, during Easter, aware that death has been defanged, images of a suffering Jesus—betrayed, scourged, nailed down, jeered at—may appear illuminated, tinted with abiding joy. Most people, however, will likely find scenes from Jesus’ life leading up to and including the crucifixion to be the most potent ones for Lenten reflection.
Choosing an image for reflection is highly personal and depends on a viewer’s taste and understanding of art. Not everyone will gravitate toward overtly religious subjects, but most people will. Even then, the subject range may be enormous. Classical works from the Middle Ages and Renaissance are abundant, and some museums will have roomfuls of European paintings where one can look. Some viewers may prefer 19th-century works, like those by Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Rouault, Henry Ossawa Tanner and Thomas Eakins, an American painter who painted a life-sized, realistic crucifix. For 20th-century works, consider Emil Nolde, Salvador Dali or Marc Chagall, who, though a Jewish artist, painted several sensitive images of the crucifixion (see p. 15). (For a surprising image, take a look at “The Resurrection, Cookham” by Sir Stanley Spencer, who customarily used his family members and neighbors as models; this image, unlike many of the others I am recommending, which are in the United States, makes its home at the Tate Gallery in London.) Less overtly religious and Christian are works by Paul Klee and Marc Rothko.
To prevent being overwhelmed by the wealth of images a large museum may offer, consider browsing online through the permanent collection to find an image of interest, then head straight to the museum to find it. Or if frequenting a museum is easy, why not visit the appropriate collections to see which works woo you back for more?
Not everyone is drawn to intentionally religious subject matter, even as an aid to prayer. Some prefer art that is evocative, perhaps photographs of people and places, landscapes or abstractions. Matisse’s dancing shapes can evince joy and life unconstrained by death as much as any scene of the victorious Jesus standing before or on an empty tomb. So could some works by Jackson Pollock. Sculpture that soars or beckons, abstractions that raise one’s sights and lower one’s guard, color combinations that call one into the deep—these are all worthy of contemplation. Some people may wish to seek out a favorite artist: Raphael, Caravaggio, Tissot, El Greco, Rembrandt.
As a test, I looked online through the small permanent collection of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Tex. It contains a number of candidates for spiritual reflection, including “Raising of Lazarus” (by Duccio di Buoninsegna), a delightful Sienese tempera on wood; “Christ Blessing” (by Giovanni Bellini); and an indoor “Supper at Emmaus” (by Jacopo Bassano, reproduced above), which includes two servants who witness the scene. The Kimbell also owns many paintings of the Madonna with child, and at least one of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt; these would be appropriate for reflection any time of year, since Christians celebrate the whole Christ event—birth to resurrection—in every season.
Three From the Metropolitan
Since so many people either live in or visit New York City, or can at least view the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art online, I have selected three images from hundreds available at that museum to illustrate briefly the kind of observations that can lead to prayer. (See the sidebar for a listing of suitable artworks elsewhere.)
“The Denial of Saint Peter,” by Caravaggio (Gallery 30). The artist depicts three characters—a maid, a soldier and the terrified fisherman, Peter, who has followed Jesus closely up to this portentous moment. The viewer glimpses a private drama, as the maid publicly accuses Peter, who is still overwhelmed by fear. He was there in the Garden of Gethsemane when Judas betrayed Jesus to the authorities, and he knows that Jesus stands above him now, being interrogated by the high priest. Peter’s thumbs point to his own breast as if accusing himself, despite the words of denial on his lips, “I never knew the man.” To a Christian, this painting shows how costly discipleship can be. Peter understands that his faith is a life or death matter. “I thought I killed Jesus,” Msgr. Philip Murnion once wrote about the sinner’s personal responsibility for the crucifixion. What would I do in Peter’s place?
“Crucifixion,” by Salvador Dali (first-floor entryway to the modern galleries). In surrealist style, the artist suspends Jesus’ body in midair, “lifts it up,” to use biblical phrasing, like the snake lifted up to heal the unfaithful Israelites in Moses’ day and as God will do once and for all at the resurrection. In Dali’s painting, Jesus is invisibly attached to a cross, made of bronze cubes. We see no blood, no nails and no facial expression at all, yet Jesus’ fingers curl in agony. Beneath him, a woman dressed in a long robe gazes up. Both faces are turned away from the viewer. The woman stands on a tile floor that leads to a beach, water and mountains. She witnesses the crucifixion, as does the viewer, who also witnesses her presence there. On one level, this is a traditional theme: a woman at the foot of the cross. Here, though, we are asked to decide who we are in relation to this Jesus: Are we merely an onlooker or something more, a follower, a witness too? What do we make of this man’s death? Can it heal us?
“Dead Christ and the Angels” by Edouard Manet (new Impressionist galleries, reproduced on p. 17). Manet chooses as a subject a moment between the crucifixion and the resurrection; we are party to that moment of cosmic sorrow. Perhaps these two angels are the ones who will speak to Mary Magdalen when she comes to the tomb. The artist presents an ashen-faced corpse with clear wounds. Jesus is expressionless; all the emotion appears on the faces of the angels. The artist’s intention seems captured in the title, to show us the Christ not quite risen. The snake slithering in the foreground, symbol of the Satan, is about to be conquered as soon as God raises Jesus from this state and fills him with new life. The painting caused outrage when it was first displayed, because the subject seemed unseemly and it contains an erroneous biblical quotation, which the artist refused to correct even after it was pointed out to him.
Finding the right image to contemplate is like choosing a book to read. Before investing time and money, many people consult book reviews, ask friends for suggestions, read a sample chapter online or in the stacks, then make a choice.
Once the selection is made, one need not research the picture or the artist, though that does not hurt appreciation. Instead, the goal is to connect with the image by simply looking, waiting patiently until links are established. To attend to art in prayer, one must believe that artists, at least the great ones, communicate some truth about creation or the human condition. Art can draw one out of oneself and into a liminal state of openness and responsiveness to God’s spirit. That is something I have experienced, and the hope of finding it again compels me to search out art in books, in churches, online and in museums.
Images send subliminal messages, as advertisers well know. Why not make time to look contemplatively at images that matter, take them in, let them have their way with us, so to speak. Like music keenly heard, art can also usher us into a spiritual realm where we can see the presence of God. It is right here in our midst.
Watch an audio slide show on how to pray with art.
A Sampler of Art for Lent
The Art Institute of Chicago owns “The Crucifixion,” by Lucas Cranach the Elder; “Study of Arms and Legs of Christ Crucified,” a pen-and-ink study by Eugène Delacroix full of motion and life; “Christ on the Cross,” a rubbing in native style by Paul Gauguin; “Christ Carrying the Cross,” an unfamiliar oil worth seeing by a Bavarian master, from the Worcester Collection; and “Descent From the Cross,” one of two by Rembrandt. However, only two images of the more than 100 I viewed online are currently on view in the museum: “Black Cross, New Mexico,” Georgia O’Keeffe’s stark, bodyless cross dominating a Southwest landscape; and “The Crucifixion,” by Francisco de Zurbarán, a large painting against a dark background that many will find appealing for reflection. (www.artic.edu/aic)
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, contains a marble sculpture, “Christ at the Column”; “The Last Supper Frieze,” from 12th-century Spain, a fresco transferred to canvas; Battista Tiepolo’s etching “St. Joseph Carrying the Infant Jesus”; a small bronze plaque from 17th-century Italy of “The Flagellation”; and a stunning oil by Simone Cantarini, “The Risen Christ,” in which Christ appears to fly over the bodies of sleeping soldiers. Unfortunately, many images in the collection are not yet online. (www.mfa.org)
The Getty Center, Los Angeles, has hundreds of prospects, among which are: Simon Bening’s “The Agony in the Garden,” a small painting with gold leaf on parchment, one of a number of paintings by him in this format, including “Denial of St. Peter,” “Christ, Caiaphas,” and other illustrations; a footlong corpus carved from wood in 1600, the kind of devotional object used for millennia; carved wooden panels by Christoph Daniel Schenck, including “The Penitent St. Peter,” anguished at having betrayed Jesus; and a pen-and-ink finished drawing by Pellegrino Tibaldi, “The Incredulity of Thomas.” (www.getty.edu/museum)
The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, has not put its permanent collection online for browsing; but the museum-selected highlights from its European art collection include “The Denial of St. Peter,” by Nicolas Tournier, a large, dramatic and colorful depiction with six major figures, making Peter’s denial all the more public. The folk art category features “Jesus on the Cross,” a carved and painted crucifix by Ulysses Davis. (www.high.org)