I’m not really interested in art. I know that sounds terrible but what I mean is that most pieces of fine art leave me cold. I can appreciate their beauty. I can appreciate the enormous skill it took to create them. I can be humbled by the genius of the artist. But visiting an art gallery does not feel like top of my list of priorities. I’d rather stay at home and read a good book.
However, I’m not entirely a lost cause. I’ve always tried to make sure that I visit art galleries, even if I don’t particularly feel like it. I do it because I recognise that we live in a very digitally saturated world, where our brains are constantly fatigued with images. A world where Instagram and Facebook can serve us up hundreds of images in one sitting. A world where scrolling through a social media feed can give our brains repeated hits of dopamine (in the same way that addictive drugs do), but doesn’t necessarily leave us with anything positive long-term.
We need to stand still in front of a painting that took years to finish, at a distance so close to it that we can still see the brush-strokes, in a place that houses priceless artifacts from centuries before we were even born. We need to move out of ourselves and our selfie culture to a place where we can stand in awe at something both physically and spiritually bigger than ourselves. This is not something that I find easy, especially a decade into my own use of social media and the familiarity that my own brain has in the instant-hit it receives from likes and comments. My brain doesn’t like wandering slowly through an art gallery in silence. It doesn’t like being asked to stand and stare at a painting I might not understand or see the significance of. It doesn’t like my ego being ignored in front of a work of genius that it doesn’t see itself in. But it is always uplifted and inspired by these art gallery experiences, and that is always a good thing.
However there have been times when my patience has been rewarded, and my brain and heart have stayed still enough to have been surprised by God in front of a painting or a statue that I might just have easily walked past. Here are four examples of times when that happened. They are only my examples, and they might seem at first unrelated to the piece of art in question. But they serve to illustrate the potential for enormous power that real contact with art has, and the way that God can connect many things in our lives in order to speak to us. So here are 4 ways God surprised me through art:
A first glance I thought this painting showed Mary with her arm around the infant Jesus, introducing Him to St John. She holds the child so lovingly that I was sure it was her own son. However, my guidebook explained that she was holding St John, while the angel propped up the baby Jesus. This was Da Vinci’s way of explaining that Mary brings us to Jesus. I saw this painting at a time in my life when I really didn’t understand Mary’s role. It is not an exaggeration to say that this painting was instrumental in helping me understand her better. With so much tenderness she nudges us towards her son, and at that moment in the art gallery I stopped and stared and realized what a gentle and loving mother she really is.
Artemisia Gentileschi was a female painter, born in Rome in 1593, whose style was inspired by Caravaggio. I was about to whizz through an exhibition of her paintings (not even realising she was a female painter at a time when women artists were not respected) when I stopped to watch a video of her life. What I discovered moved me greatly: Artemisia suffered enormously when at the age of 17 she was raped by her art tutor and subsequent tortured when she gave her testimony in court. Despite this, she continued on with her career and produced some of the most amazing paintings of the period. Walking around the exhibition, I was moved and inspired by her courage and dignity. I felt that getting to discover her for the first time in that art gallery was a small but wonderful gift in my life.
It’s easy to think that our jobs or hobbies aren’t that particularly important. As a writer I can sometimes feel that what I do isn’t as big a deal as the roles of a heart surgeon, teacher or busy stay-at-home mom. So when I looked closely at this 1400s statue of the Virgin and Child, I was delighted to see He was sat on her lap writing on a scroll. It reminded me that “words are life” and that “the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:14).
Seeing Jesus Himself writing reminded me too of the enormous importance of words and the power that they hold. Above all, it reminded me that by God becoming a helpless baby, He allowed the mundane, the unimportant and the day-to-day to be imbued with sanctity too.
Michelangelo’s Pieta isn’t in an art gallery, it is in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but boy was I surprised when I saw it. Having seen plenty of pictures of it, I didn’t expect the real-deal to be particularly gripping. But it was. The hugeness of it in real life just amplifies the suffering it portrays. It leaves you in no doubt as to the agony of Good Friday.
When I saw it, I had just been reading Night’s Bright Darkness by Sally Read. In it, she relates her own visit to see the Pieta. She writes:
“Alone I felt the full drop of Christ into her lap…I saw her great acceptance. It stunned me, her capacity for pain. Not ‘look at what you’ve done’ but ‘this is what I have’”.
I understood then something that I had not before; that in order for pain to be healed, acceptance first has to happen. And that acceptance is possible, even in the most awful of situations. Mary, in the aftermath of Good Friday, was not denying what had happened. She honored her son in His brokenness in her arms. But she also had a trust that went beyond fear: a trust that death was not the end of the story.
These four experiences have stayed with me in a very poignant way. I’m less inclined now to skip over an art gallery visit in a new city and more open to the realisation that God can speak through art and our culture. If you want a more tangible experience of beauty, seek it out in the cathedrals, museums and art galleries around you. If that is not possible, seek it out in the wild and beautiful spaces of nature around you! Stand and lose yourself in front of something that is beautiful and long-lasting and allow God the opportunity to speak to you through it.
Please note: I know that sometimes museums and art galleries and cathedrals can be expensive to visit even as a one-off. I grew up in, and still regularly visit, London, where I am fortunate in that the vast majority of museums and art galleries are completely free. I know this scenario is not always possible in every location or season of life. This article is an encouragement and reminder that God can speak in unexpected places, if only we could put our phones down long enough to listen to Him!
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