Far from a distraction away from God or – even worse, as some claim – idolatry, sacred art makes sense.  Whether as a teaching tool, a meditative window or – on the part of the artist – an act of human participation in the creative impulse of God, beauty in art speaks to us ineffably and in ways that words and facts sometimes can’t. (It’s almost as if we humans, endowed with five senses, were created as art-makers and art-appreciators.)

In one earth-shattering moment, THE pivotal moment of history, God became man! He took on flesh for human eyes to behold – the Source of beauty became beauty in bodily form. In light of the reality of the Incarnation, the rich tradition of sacred art is a deep and refreshing well for us to drink from as Catholics. It is part of our patrimony.

When it comes to praying the Rosary, there are as many ways to meditate on the mysteries as there are individuals past and present who’ve nurtured a devotion to this beautiful, powerhouse prayer to Our Lady. But, as for me, I am a daydreamer, easily distracted. I’m a visual thinker, though I don’t suppose I’m all that unique in this regard (especially as we all become more and more screen-oriented). I find that as I cultivate the habit of praying the Rosary, certain images seem to take root in my imagination and help me to focus on a particular mystery in the life of Christ.

With 2,000 years of art history to draw upon, there are SO MANY out there, spanning various time periods, styles, and mediums. Today we present just five* to start with, but we encourage you to find the ones that help you best!

The Resurrection of Jesus

Burnand, Resurrection
BURNAND, John & Peter Running to the Tomb on the Morning of the Resurrection, 1898, Oil on Canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

This is one of my all-time favorites. If it moves you, you might enjoy this commentary for a better reflection on its merits. For me, it communicates so much of the hope of Easter, suspended in a moment of heart-palpitating worry/pain/exhaustion/astonishment on the faces of John and Peter. It helps me to imagine not only the vision of these two apostles in those slow-motion moments between hearing Mary Magdalen’s message and their arrival at the tomb, but also to meditate on Mary Magdalen, herself, and the Blessed Mother (where was she as this scene transpired?) and the awesome mystery of what has just taken place: Christ’s victory over death.

The Ascension

Ascension Icon Glorious
Photo by Dimitris Vetsikas

What a stunning icon of Our Savior’s glorious Ascension! I suspect, but am not sure, that this is painted into the ceiling of a Byzantine church – and why not? How often do we find ourselves gazing upward in contemplation of God and heaven, whether in a sacred space or perhaps outside in nature? Just as naturally as a heavy rock teetering on a ledge wants to fall by gravitational force, to rest at the lowest point, achieving what it was made for, to me it seems like the most natural and obvious outcome that, having accomplished His earthly mission, Jesus would return to rest with His Father in heaven. What must it have looked like when He ascended (bodily – and therefore visibly!)?

Side note: If you’ve never set foot in a Ukrainian Catholic church, check to see if there’s one in your city. The ones I’ve visited are full of similar, large and vibrant iconography from floor to ceiling!

The Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost

Jean Restout, Pentecost (detail), 1732, Oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris
RESTOUT, Pentecost (detail), 1732, Oil on Canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Given the incorporeality of the Holy Spirit, this mystery of the Rosary is one of the more difficult ones for me to imagine. But there’s something evocative of deep memory in Restout’s famous baroque canvas, on display in the Louvre. Flames and beams of light depict the Holy Spirit’s illumination of the Blessed Mother and the Apostles in the Upper Room. Beyond its obvious beauty, it’s almost as if this painting reminds my soul of that moment when the Third Person of the Trinity was unleashed upon the thirteen.

The Glorious Assumption of Mary

DANIELE da Volterra, The Assumption of the Virgin, c. 1555, Fresco, Santissima Trinità dei Monti, Rome
D. da VOLTERA, The Assumption of the Virgin, c. 1555, Fresco, Santissima Trinità dei Monti, Rome

As you can see, this fresco is painted into the wall behind the altar in the sanctuary of Santissima Trinita dei Monti in Rome. What an exquisite rendition of Our Lady, wrapped in her blue mantle and glowing with holiness and God’s favor. I love to meditate on Jesus’s desire to be reunited with His mother, especially given what science now tells us about fetal cells remaining for decades in the body of a mother. And with such a beautiful “aid” to the imagination positioned behind the altar, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in a church whose decorative architecture is itself a prayer would – speaking for myself – transport me this close to heaven!

The Coronation of Mary

GHIRLANDAIO, Domenico Coronation of the Virgin 1486-90, Fresco, Cappella Tornabuoni, Santa Maria Novella, Florence
GHIRLANDAIO, Coronation of the Virgin, 1486-90, Fresco, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

More mesmerizing color! There are countless other depictions of Our Lady’s Coronation as queen of heaven and earth (queen of the universe!). The symbolism of the Kingship of Christ and the Queenship of Mary is the source of deep meditation for me, as I find there is something so beautiful and reassuring in resting under the authority of such supreme benevolence, strength and Truth. Why would I hesitate to entrust to them the deepest longings of my heart? Knowing that she is Queen helps me to rest amidst the various uncertainties, sorrows, and almost constant upheaval in the world around me.

*Bonus: The Shroud of Turin

Jesus Christ, King of Kings
Photo by Ken Pilon

I’ve taken license here as it’s not a painting. Indeed, the Shroud might be better described as the world’s first photograph! But how rich a source it has been for me to meditate on this linen cloth image, in particular when I am praying the first Glorious mystery. Scientists now understand that its markings were created by a sudden burst of radiant ultraviolet light that even the most advanced lasers of today would struggle to reproduce. I sometimes get lost in almost cinematic thought about the moment of intense light and heat, and that He left us with this relic as a clue (or a love letter!). Its mysterious insights only become more astonishing to us as human science and technology “catch up,” as it were, to the advanced-from-the-very-beginning “technology” that was always in the mind and infinite potency of God.

Our series on praying the Rosary with Art

The Joyful Mysteries

The Luminous Mysteries

The Sorrowful Mysteries

The Glorious Mysteries

Questions for Reflection:

1) Which of these five images captures your imagination and draws you deeper?

2) What other works of art have helped you to pray?

3) Besides visual aids, what other “tricks” have you discovered to help you meditate on the mysteries of the Rosary?

4) How can we help our non-Catholic friends to embrace sacred art as not only acceptable, but even pleasing to God?