Christian Living · Non-fiction

Turning Towards God Through Art

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Art & Prayer: The Beauty of Turning to God

Author: Timothy Verdon, PhD
Published: 2014, Paraclete Press
Length: 298 pages

Buy: Amazon | Paraclete Press

Perhaps an image immediately comes to mind when I speak of feasting your eyes on art. For instance, the captivating gaze of Girl With a Pearl Earring, or the striking color palette of a Matisse. Now take this same idea and think of feasting on God–mulling his characteristics over in different lights, and celebrating our dance of living in response to God’s presence. This is the opportunity that sacred art offers. Respected art historian Timothy Verdon has dedicated his masterful work Art and Prayer to helping us receive sacred art as a gateway to prayer.

How can art teach us to pray? In prayer we turn towards God with our imagination: we picture Christ and who he is, and we communicate back to him our hopes and fears, our praises and pleadings from the vocabulary of our heart. Sacred art–and I would argue all art that honors God even if non-religious in theme–also expresses hopes and fears, praises and pleadings. It models saints who have sought God well, and reflects upon what it means to live in response to the gift of Christ. Art deepens our imagination. It allows us to express ourselves more fully to God in both spirit and truth as it moves us, opens our eyes, and deepens our pondering.

Art & Prayer is bursting with full-color, glossy photographs of stunning art pieces that adorn museums, cathedrals, and private collections around the world. Many of them show scenes of traditional sacred stories that we have lost touch with, like Isidore the Farmer who honored God over the opportunity for wealth, or the Swiss Banker Jacob Meyer who placed his family under Christ’s protection. Verdon re-connects us with these stories.

Most religious art comes from a Catholic heritage. Frequent portrayals of the papacy and Jesus’ mother are difficult for protestant viewers to appreciate. While Verdon writes in line with this heritage, he extends these symbols to deeper themes that all Christians will be able to connect with.

Other paintings have stylistic elements from a bygone time that now seem foreign and unapproachable. Painting by painting Verdon de-codifies these images so that we can receive from them the nourishment they were meant to give. Consider Jean-François Millet’s The Angelus:

“It openly and unabashedly celebrates the nostalgia for a good and simple world in which faith gave meaning to work and family relationships–the peasants, a man and a woman, in fact seem to be a married couple, and their youth brings to mind the possibility of children. The work exalts, that is, an old-fashioned way of life that had endured right up to the present, projecting it toward the future.
And at the heart of this way of life based on perennial values we see prayer, humble and devout, that inserts men and women in God’s grand plan. Millet, who came from the country and loved farm life, in effect practically fuses the couple with the earth they work, in warm evening light that models both the human forms and the clods of soil. Prayer here becomes a space of cosmic communion, illuminating humble folk as sunset gilds the broad horizon.”

I want to have this painting gazing over me as I work. What an expression of the value of simple labor as honoring to God.

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The Angelus: Jean-Francois Millet

But more than a compendium of enlightenment to take with you to a museum, Verdon’s work offers a reworking of how we approach a sacred painting. Living with his interpretations for awhile transforms the depths of what you expect to find when you view art. What does a piece’s setting say about prayer as a place? What do the placement of objects say about a story’s interpretation? Or can the stance of a character be giving us a theological lesson? What does the artist’s choices of lighting and color change about how we experience a piece? These are questions that apply to every piece of art but that we sometimes forget to ask when looking at a work we think obvious in meaning like a Madonna. Verdon’s gift for interpretation proves that there is so much more to probe in sacred art than we often give it credit for.

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Genesis: Abraham Listening to God, 6th Century

Covering works as early as the third century through late into the nineteenth, this book is a comprehensive trail through art history peppered with rich theology, and a radical testimony to how men have reached out to God from their depths in all generations, and how God has drawn near. Let art teach us to pray and we have joined the choir of the faithful beyond time.

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Icons: The Essential Collection

Author: Sr. Faith Riccio, CJ
Published: 2016, Paraclete Press
Length: 116 pages

Buy: Amazon

If you are interested in sacred art, Icons: The Essential Collection by Sister Faith Riccio, CJ is a lovely place to start for using Icons for devotional reflection. While Art & Prayer is meant for study and reference, this one is slim and pocket sized, with a thought provoking quote, verse, and summary of each scene or saint that is pictured. Each icon is an original painting created by Sister Faith Riccio using time-honored Orthodox iconographic style. While the focus of this book is not to explain how to appreciate icons, the forward encourages readers to treat the images like friends–to live with them and let time help you gain perceptive eyes. The images contain a variety of biblical scenes as well as images of saints that most of us will recognize the names of (St. Benedict, St. Francis, and Paul for example). While I get more out of the biblical scenes (such as contemplating Christ washing the disciples’ feet), the saints each hold a banner with a phrase summarizing what their life stood for, which is an invitation to Christ-following in itself.

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