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The Art of Praying With Art

May 28, AD2017

jesusCatholics are fortunate in having many ways to pray, e.g. the rosary, the mass, meditation and contemplation, Lectio Divina, or simply reciting the Jesus prayer. You might say that, as far as prayer goes, we have something for every person at every level of engagement. In this column I would like to offer another way that some might find helpful and enjoyable, namely using religious art as to enrich one’s prayer life.

Religious Art in the Life of the Church

Pope Saint Pius X reminds us …

“The Church has cultivated and fostered the progress of the arts unceasingly, admitting to the service of religion all things good and beautiful that human talent has produced, down through the ages.” (Motu Proprio, Tra Le Sollecitudini Instruction on Sacred Music, 1903. Paragraph nr. 5.)

For hundreds of years, the Church used painting, sculpture, stained glass, and sacred architecture to inspire and instruct. The role of the arts in supporting these functions was crucial in times when vast numbers of people were illiterate. But it was not always so.

Some readers may recall learning about the eighth-century heresy of iconoclasm (literally, smashing icons). This was the belief that using images (icons) in worship was idolatry. The iconoclasts were so vehement that they destroyed many works of art and carried out a persecution of those who insisted on using images. The heresy was refuted by Popes Gregory II and Gregory III who argued that pictures were not idols and therefore permissible for use by the faithful. The action of the popes was augmented by the work of Saint John Damascene. Damascene wrote three treatises on The Veneration Due to Images which were widely circulated throughout Christendom. (St. John Damascene is known as “The Doctor of Christian Art.”) These works eventually overcame the iconoclast heresy and paved the way for some of the greatest works of art in the world to be created through the inspiration of our faith and the patronage of our Church.

Praying With Religious Art—Video Divina?

Some of you may know the opening lines of Marty Haugen’s hymn “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard what God has ready for those who love him” (based on 1 Corinthians 2:9). While it is not my intention to gainsay Mr. Haugen or Saint Paul, I will offer this: Religious experience and aesthetic experience are very similar. And we can draw on this similarity to gain an ever so small glimpse of the ineffable, the transcendent, the unknowable here on earth.

Lectio Divina, divine reading, is a form of prayer that involves four stages: One reads a passage carefully; meditates upon its many meanings; prays about the passage; then settles into contemplation, resting in the quiet presence of God. (The stages are more commonly known by their Latin names: Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio, and Contemplatio.) This practice yields joy, insight, and spiritual growth. A similar practice can be done with artworks.

Approaching Religious Art

If you would like to try this, I would say pick an artwork and be prepared to spend some time.

Art experts engage in a process they call “reading” a painting. They slowly scan the work top to bottom, left to right, noticing all the people and things included in the scene and considering each one’s literal and symbolic meaning. This in-depth seeing (Video) corresponds to the reading (Lectio) in Lectio Divina and it is the first step in praying with art.

Here are some things you might look for in the artwork you have chosen: What is the initial impression? Where is the viewer in relation to the action? What people and things are included? Where are the elements placed in relation to each other, i.e. the composition? What is your own recollection of the scene being depicted? If you are looking at a painting of the Annunciation, you will pretty much know what should be included and can look for how the artist has depicted them. Again, be aware that this is a slow process, especially for people who are used to looking at pictures that move.

Now move on to meditation (Meditatio). St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius of Loyola recommend a form of meditation wherein the person praying imagines him or herself immersed in the scene: How does the overall impression make you feel? What are your senses (sight, hearing, smell) telling you? Do this with the artwork you are spending time with. Let it open up insights you might never have developed without this type of leisurely and careful study.

Now begin to pray (Oratio) and let your prayer be guided by your experience with the work. You may find yourself moved by something you noticed in the piece that opens up an entirely new line of dialogue with God. Or it may intensify something you have been talking over with the Creator over many years. Good!

Finally, enter into contemplation (Contemplatio). Now might be the time to close your eyes, or just gaze on the work without words. Take what you need from the work: Consolation? Joy? Clarity? There is a three-way dialogue here between you the work and the Lord.

So now, let us give this a try. In honor of the Easter season, I offer this work by the artist Frederick Franck, creator of Pacem in Terris in Warwick, New York. (The story is long but, in a nutshell, Frederick was a friend of Pope John XXIII. He built this sculpture garden and named it after Pope John’s famous encyclical. The whole story is told at http://www.frederickfranck.org/).

Death and Transfiguration, Frederick Franck
Used by permission of Pacem in Terris Museum, Warwick, NY

The sculpture is currently called Death and Transfiguration but it is clearly a Resurrection image. It was cut from a four-foot by eight-foot piece of corten steel with an oxyacetylene torch. The whole is painted black.

There is an artistic value called “economy of means.” It means that the best art conveys the greatest communication with the simplest of means. Franck’s Death and Transfiguration is a fine example of this concept with special meaning for those of us who rejoice in Christ’s Resurrection.

The reclining element captures the hopelessness that must have afflicted the disciples when they saw Christ die on the cross. The bent figure, with the chest wound apparent, painted dull black, rests on a cairn of stones that are clear reminders of the tomb. Nothing could be deader.

But then, resurrection. The same figure is seen returning to life. The arms once outstretched on the cross are now raised triumphantly. Three things about the standing element immediately capture the viewer.

First, the risen Christ is depicted by light shining through the panel. How can any Christian, upon seeing this, not think of the prologue to the Gospel of John: “That which had come to be in him was life, and this life was the light of men. The light shines on in the darkness, for the darkness did not overcome it” John 1:4-5.

Next, notice now that the light “shines on in the darkness” even though it is surrounded by black-painted darkness. But this is not just any light; this is daylight, the light of the sun, more powerful than any flame man can create. And the shape of this light reminds us that this is He who was once dead. Our hope is restored.

Finally, remember “That which had come to be in him was life.” Notice the blooming spring flowers and greenery visible through the upright element. What can greater depiction of life there be?

Death, life, and light, all coming from the same sheet of coarse steel. Powerful imagery telling a powerful story in a few simple strokes. This is art. This is theology. This is our faith.

Now, I hasten to add I do not claim that this is not the one true interpretation of this work. It may have been that one time Frederick called this piece Resurrection. He was always re-naming his work. At the time of his death, it had the current name. But what does it matter? This Catholic viewer immediately picked up on the Resurrection story present in the steelwork and that is all that matters. Artworks live on their own terms and engage each viewer in their own unique way. I am sure your meditation on this image will generate insights that I never imagined. Good! That’s what art is supposed to do.

Finding Art to Pray With

It may seem a little unrealistic to expect that some of our readers will be able to find art worthy of this type of prayer. However, it is there if you make an effort to look around and notice.

A great place to start is your own church. Your parish’s sanctuary is probably decorated with murals, sculptures, stained glass and other visual work that you have probably not noticed because you see them every day. (I went to our church for twenty years before I noticed that the stained glass windows depicted the mysteries of the rosary. The moral of the story? “Pay attention.”) The Stations of the Cross can offer a rich source of imagery for meditation because each one is a story in itself.

It can be enjoyable to visit other churches. You should feel comfortable going to other parishes to enjoy their art or making a pilgrimage to your diocesan cathedral. Cathedral churches generally get pretty good artwork and a lot of it.

Museums are wonderful places and it is great to be up front and close to great works of art. But there are drawbacks, namely, other people. These folks probably don’t care that you want silence for your prayer. And there are always those who nail down the perfect seat in front of the piece and refuse to budge—only one art appreciator at a time apparently. The thing to do here is note the name of the artist and the painting and look it up online. Most online images of fine artworks found on the Web are fairly high quality.

Then there is the library. This would be my choice if I did not have access to museums. Art books are usually large format and richly printed. You can take the book home with you and spend time with the images in the quiet of your space and on your own schedule.

Praying With Art is Real Prayer

Praying with art may not seem like a spiritual activity. After all, you are just looking at pictures. But be assured, this is real prayer, the same experience you would get when meditating on a passage of scripture or a mystery of the rosary. Art has the capacity move us profoundly. When aesthetic experience is combined with our communion with God in prayer it can be an uplifting affirmation of our faith and our hope.

The Church’s Contribution to the Arts

Every Easter season I give a presentation on Christian art, music, and architecture to our RCIA people. Of course, I explore using the arts in prayer. But I conclude by reminding them that the world would be less without our Church’s contributions to the advancement of the arts both through patronage and inspiration as told by Pius X. This is no small thing. Next time you are confronted with negative views of Catholicism, just think about the magnificence given to the world by our faith and our Church. That should be enough.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

I am a 70 year old cradle Catholic. Some would say I am a Baby Boomer although I really do not identify with that demographic’s values. Six kids, seven grandchildren, married to Dottie 40 years on April 16, Viet Nam veteran, and musician.

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  • christopherschaefer

    The reredos in my previous post is partially obstructed by the sanctuary lamp. Here’s a better photo: http://sthughofcluny.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Version-2-17.jpg

  • christopherschaefer

    The painted reredos (depicting the Assumption) behind the high altar of St. Mary’s Church, Norwalk, Connecticut USA was commissioned by the parish only a few years ago: http://www.stmarynorwalk.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/197A8705-Copy.jpg
    The parish suffered extensive “wreckovation” during the 1960s: the heresy of iconoclasm disguised as “noble simplicity”.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    Brilliant essay! I think it is especially timely in that our culture is growing more visual and less verbal (not that that is necessarily a good thing). Beauty is certainly a window to God.