Chapter OneVisual Art and Spiritual Formation in Christian Tradition
Growing up as a Midwestern, middle-class American female in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, I was encouraged to explore the arts of all kinds. My mother pursued oil painting in our basement, and all three of her daughters took extra-curricular art, dance, drama, or piano lessons. (I often wonder, if I had a brother, whether he would have been encouraged in the same way.) My upbringing supported my continuing art studies in high school and college, and after graduation I went off to teach art in public school and directed plays as an extra-curricular assignment.
Perhaps because of my art-enriched environment as a youth, I found myself vocationally confused. Was teaching art the right career choice, or was art actually a way that I learned and looked at things in a more general way? I left teaching after one year, considered pursuing theatre professionally, but ended up attending seminary instead. My professional shift surprised my artistically oriented mother, but not my father or most of my teachers and friends. For just as I had been active with the arts in my formative years, I had also been pretty serious about youth activities at church and had discovered that I was fascinated by the religion courses that I was required to take in order to graduate from my church-related college.
Still not sure what to do with my life, after three years I left seminary and went back to art school, thinking that I had left something important behind. For the next five years I vacillated, torn between practicing art and studying theology, assuming that I had to choose between them. For some reason, I never understood that they need not be separate pursuits - that following one didn't have to exclude the other and that each might be an aspect of who I was and how I was formed. When I eventually started teaching Christian history and theology, I tried to find ways of integrating these different sides of myself, finally understanding that the arts were the way I understood my world, and one of the ways I expressed myself.
Thinking back on my situation growing up, I realize now that the church environment that formed and nurtured my faith, while not exactly hostile to the arts, made only minimal effort to integrate any of them into worship or Christian education. Singing in the choir was the full extent of my way of being an artist in the church. We didn't have liturgical dance or chancel drama, and there was very little tolerance for visual art in the worship space of our spare, Protestant sanctuary. The arts belonged to the secular world and had a taint of self-indulgence, sensuality, or even frivolousness that made them feel out of place in the house of God. I grew up thinking that religious formation had more to do with my behavior, piety, or good works than it did with vision or passion. Exuberance was somewhat unseemly. Desire and beauty were temptations that we had to resist.
I tell this story because I suspect that many middle-class white Americans of my generation had similar experiences. I also realize that times have changed, and even the most staid churches are starting to incorporate art into their worship, programs, and teaching. This is all to the good, but I worry that too often art is perceived as a kind of "extra" offering, meant for those of us who can appreciate it or want to be involved, rather than something essential to the shaping of faith and religious experience. At the same time, we fail to notice how much we are already affected by the arts - or lack of them - in our religious contexts. The architecture of the church building, the stained-glass windows, the organ music, and the flower arrangements may be taken for granted instead of evaluated or challenged. But surely they have an impact on how we think about, image, and worship God. And if we begin to pay that kind of attention to how all these things together inform and affect our faith, we might begin to wonder how we could have gone so long without noticing. And once we start to notice, we cannot help but be critical as well as appreciative. We may want to make changes.
So I first want to address the process of looking at things and coming to understand how the act of looking itself can shape and form us into visually conscious people. I want to reflect on the ways, active and passive, that we notice our visual environment. Occasionally we are engaged viewers, but most of the time we are only vaguely conscious of what is around us. When we are engaged, we are attending to the experience of seeing in a highly conscious way, and we are aware of our responses, perhaps even of the more lasting ways we have been affected by the engagement. When we are passive observers, we may not be so conscious of the ways that what we see reflects upon who we are. When we have a sustained encounter with a particular image, we may find over time that we have been even more deeply affected by it than we first realized. Such encounters themselves, depending on their quality and duration, will be part of our spiritual (and aesthetic) formation.
When we consciously attend to an object, especially an art object, we will have some kind of reaction to it. The response may be subtle or it may be strong. It may be positive or negative. We may be turned off, aroused, repulsed, delighted, or disappointed. We may be moved to tears, frightened, bored, or baffled. Our responses may be different from those of the person next to us. But no matter how we respond, we are slightly or significantly different for having had the viewing, or the hearing - for having paid attention. Maybe only a single atom of our consciousness has shifted; maybe a landslide has taken place in our souls. Indelible memories may be fixed or recovered. We may not be aware of much impact, or we may recognize that this was a significant moment. Still, something happens. The experience and our response often resist explanation in words, reminding us that we can know or learn things without the benefit of language. Our memories, even our ideas, are essentially constructed out of images and colors, spatial relationships, smells, sensations, and sounds, more than they are made of words ordered into sentences - even when we record and transmit them this way.
Some visual images seem to have a kind of power over us. They attract, repel, or puzzle. Unbidden by us, they may call attention: they "catch our eye." Sometimes we seek them out. Philosophers and theologians from Plato onward have known that we are drawn to the beautiful, delighted and shaped by our encounter with it, just as we are drawn to the curious, the ugly, and the grotesque. Whether what we see pleases, disturbs, calms, or delights, an apparently inanimate object can have an enormous magnetic power. If we engage it long enough, we may come to a kind of intimate relationship with it. It can thread itself through our memories, even if it only forms a background for them. Such relationships can shift over time. As we ourselves change, our experience of objects and images we have come to know well changes too. Moreover, we also come to realize that others do not have the same experiences. Something that we find beautiful, they find ugly - or they may just not see things or understand what they see in the way that we do. We eventually come to appreciate varieties of taste - the challenge of difference - and learn from one another.
Once, when I was in Rome, I stopped into the Chiesa del Gesy, the mother church of the Jesuit order and a primary example of Baroque architecture. I like this church, but I don't love it, even though I have come, over the years, to appreciate certain aspects of the Baroque style. On this occasion, however, I met a young Swedish girl, about ten or eleven years old, who was absolutely enraptured. She turned to me and cried out (in English) "This is the most beautiful place on earth!" and went in search of a priest to speak with. I noticed her uncomfortable, even embarrassed parents standing at the back, probably wondering what she would do next. After all, they were only tourists stopping by for a quick look, not for a mystical experience. But these things happen. The image might surprise us. I have never forgotten the look on that child's face. I wonder if she has gone back since, and how she sees the place now.
Even though in this case the discovery was unexpected, the beautiful doesn't always catch us by surprise. Sometimes we seek out images and bring our particular perspectives to the act of the viewing, shaping us even as we are being shaped by the image. People wait in long lines to see the Mona Lisa in Paris, the Last Supper in Milan, or the latest blockbuster exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Pilgrims make arduous and expensive journeys to a particular shrine, sacred or secular (fig. 1.1 on p. 5).We invest something in the experience well in advance, bring with us certain expectations and hopes, and arrive with a keen sense of the potential in that moment of actually seeing. Perhaps some of the most common experiences of this powerful relationship between viewer and object come not from the art gallery but from the liturgy. For instance, week in and week out, in a Roman Catholic mass, the Blessed Sacrament is consecrated and elevated for the congregation to see. On the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Host is processed through the streets of a city (fig. 1.2 on p. 6). Those who participate in these processions know that what they see is different from what a casual observer sees. To the outsider, the image has no particular significance, except as a kind of spectacle or curiosity. But to the insider, the vision is itself the goal, and it has a sacred purpose and dimension.
In either case, whether we are "found" or actively go out looking ourselves, the act of seeing leaves a mark, some kind of impression. If we are disappointed or bored by what we see, if it does not attract us, if we do not find it beautiful or fascinating, we probably won't be very much affected by it and will go on to look elsewhere. But if we are attracted, fascinated, or even curious about the scene before our eyes, we will likely return to it, if only in memory. And this will begin to shape us in small or significant ways. But, we may ask, what or who initiated this kind of seeing? Surely, even when we set out to see something in particular, we cannot predict or control what will pass before our eyes. To a certain extent we will always be passive observers, subjects who do not choose what we see. Once we have seen, we cannot erase the more powerful images from our minds without great difficulty. Thus it happens quite often that seekers who think they know what they're after are suddenly taken down a different path, drawn by a vision of some kind that powerfully affects them in ways they had not expected.
The Formative Power of the Beautiful
The subject of "beauty" has been much studied through the ages, in particular in writings on philosophical and theological aesthetics. To many people the term, at least at first, refers only to qualities that make something externally pleasing or lovely to the eye, so they miss the active agency - or force - of beauty. An alternate term, "attractive," expresses energy and power. Ancient as well as modern philosophers, who have written on the power of a beautiful object to attract us and cause us then to ascend to higher (or more profound) knowledge, were not primarily interested in external loveliness or - even worse - prettiness. Philosophers like Plato or theologians like Augustine spoke of the human response to beauty as a directional energy that motivates and focuses the viewer. Such observation is not simply seeing something but deeply engaging it at many levels.
Our attraction to the beautiful object is a directional pull, drawing us toward itself, and thus it serves as both inspiration and guide. In Plato's Symposium, Diotima, Socrates' muse, has him consider the subject of love. The true lover desires only what is good, true, and beautiful. To arrive at these objectives, however, a person may contemplate a beautiful object or individual in disciplined stages. Attraction engenders love, and love leads the person forward toward truth in higher and higher stages, until the ultimate goodness, truth, or beauty is glimpsed. The attractive object is both model and impetus - it contains elements of that ultimate beauty which draws us toward itself at the same time that we ascend.
According to Plato, humans long for union with the ultimate goal of our contemplation - the vision of the true Beauty - the Divine, which is the source of the reflected beauty that we see. Our longing for this union leads to action. Beauty does not passively work on us but stirs us up to strive for this union. While we strive, we are transformed: as we progress toward the goal, we are gradually shaped in its own image. It's not like a magical spell, changing us in a single "poof." The external eye is attracted to an external beauty at first, but subsequently the inner eye recognizes the universal quality of beauty itself, and the initial attraction turns to love. Attraction initially and finally love provide the energy that draws us onward and upward, but the aim is perfection, a combination of both goodness and truth. In this pursuit, we are taken outside of ourselves and oriented to the "other." The beauty that we first see, then seek, is beyond us, even though we are born with the innate ability to recognize it (since we also possess it in some measure).
Five hundred years after Plato died, these ideas were still in circulation. Plotinus, the third-century Neoplatonist, wrote a mystical treatise on beauty, urging the soul to know the source of its own inspiration: "Let us, then, go back to the source, and indicate at once the Principle that bestows beauty on material things. Undoubtedly this Principle exists; it is something that is perceived at the first glance, something which the soul names as from an ancient knowledge, and, recognizing, welcomes it, enters into unison with it.... This, then, is how the material thing becomes beautiful - by communicating in the beauty that flows from the Divine." Thus, for Plotinus, as for Plato, progression lies first in the attraction of the object for the observer, next in the relationship that emerges between the two, and finally in the recognition that both attraction and relationship are dependent upon the ultimate source of beauty itself. Beauty is not the goal or highest reality; its source, the Good, is. Our aspirations are, ultimately, toward the Good.
Augustine was greatly influenced by these ideas, and he reworked
them, giving them a Christian interpretation. For Augustine also, the particular
beautiful object delighted the eye and attracted the human affection