Tuesday, June 28, 2011


{St. Peter and St. Mark by Daniele Crespi}

I am a words girl. This much should be clear by now. It is words that move me, story that speaks to me. 

And yet I am drawn to art: to paintings and icons and photographs. 

Deep down, it is all art. The words and the images and the music all represent creativity in its various forms, all gifted to us by an incredibly imaginative Creator. 

This weekend, Jordan and I took some time to visit the Baroque Paintings exhibit at a local museum. 

I want to make this much clear: I am no art expert. I cannot draw, cannot paint, cannot make a stick figure stand up straight in front of a perfectly square house. 

All art -- with the exception of the stuff that looks as though it was puked out onto canvas -- is impressive to me, because it is beyond me. 

I wanted to visit this exhibit not because I have any clue as to what the Baroque period even is or because I have some fantastic critical eye, but because I wanted to be reminded of Italy, of the time spent meandering through cobblestone streets and chilly museum halls. 

But the paintings managed to move me in ways other than through the power of memory. As we studied and observed and read the various paintings' descriptions, I was amazed, both at the detail of the work and at the inspiration that flowed from the artists' brushes. 

The religious art is always my favorite. I love to see the retelling of the nativity story, love seeing Mary represented in such holy ways on canvas. 

But I am learning, and I think have always known, that perhaps all art is religious. It's a concept I'm seeing over and over again in L'Engle's Walking on Water, this idea that all art has been inspired by a greater, more creative power, making it all holy and reflective of His glory. 

I love that concept, love the idea that we are created to sing and to paint and to draw and to write because that's what the Creator did. That's what He calls us to do. 

And in the middle of all of this ancient artwork and beauty, it was a small placard that caught my eye. 

"Art ... must teach the people the truth of faith and religious history not only with words but with painting and any other representation that may excite the minds and feelings of the faithful to venerate the mysteries of religion." 
- The Council of Trent

I have been raised in a simplistic Christian tradition. Our worship is simple. There are no instruments, no set prayers or liturgy, no calendar we adhere to. Our buildings are simple too. I refused to get married in the church building I grew up in because there is no natural light. Cement block, yes. Windows, not so much. It is not a building you would write home about.

For the most part, I am grateful for this beautifully simplistic upbringing, for the Christ and the Christians it introduced me to. 

When I visited Italy in the summer of 2005, though, I was struck by the ornate cathedrals, the massive bell towers and the distinct architecture. I remember wondering if I could ever worship in a place so beautiful, or if I would be too distracted by the fine paintings and stained glass. There was a part of me, too, that questioned such seemingly frivolous decor when so many around the world suffer from poverty, from water that is too dirty to even bathe in, much less drink. 

In the years since then, I've learned that beauty is not a deterrent to worship, that imagination points us toward -- not away from -- a Divine Being. 

Those cathedrals in Italy and the paintings we saw Saturday were designed and painted with a Creator in mind. They were a tribute to the source of all creativity, formed out of love and devotion for the Master Craftsman.

Beauty and imagination and creativity are not sinful; they are not merely frivolous distractions in a dying world. They are, in L'Engle's words, incarnational. When we take part in beauty, when we let our imaginations run wild, we are partaking in the divine.

"To be truly Christian," L'Engle wrote, "means to see Christ everywhere, to know him as all in all."

Saturday, I saw Him, painted on canvas in a quiet corner of a small town museum. It was but a whisper, but I heard it loud and clear.

"There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, 
and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation."
- Madeleine L'Engle

{for some thought-provoking posts on art, check out this well-written blog series.}


chet said...

I should like to read that L'Engle book. Sounds like it goes right along with a lot of what The Supper of the Lamb speaks of.

Staley Mc said...

Last year I had to go to the art museum for an Art Appreciation class and I totally fell in love with art again. I am a big fan of the religious art to, I love seeing how the artists portrays different events.

Brittany said...

Annie. I couldn't agree more. I loved this post--espeically "I've learned that beauty is not a deterrent to worship, that imagination points us toward -- not away from -- a Divine Being."

BYU, my school, just had a Carl Bloch exhibit. Somehow our little Museum of Art got quite a few of his paintings of Christ, and even some of his altarpieces from Denmark. It was such a moving exhibit. Art (in all of its forms) really does bring me to God. He must exist (and be so so good) if he such beauty exists.

mackieandryan said...

I definitely felt this way when I studied abroad in Spain. Even the art stirred something in me and I am very far from being artistic. And I loved the cathedrals and how sacred and holy a place they were. AND La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona was really amazing if you ever get a chance to go!

Relevant Notes Blog said...

I like this a lot - I'm not artistic at all, and I don't know a lot about the history of it, but I love looking at it and just admiring the beautiful work that others are able to do!

Elizabeth Dean said...

If Americans had more art like this maybe we'd think differently about a whole variety of subjects: like the study of humanities, religion, and public space.

I'm surprised they let you take pictures.

Also, next time I see you I am going to give you a great big ol' rib cracking hug and only you and I know why.

Annie said...

um, YES. to all of it. {i really wish i could be more articulate in my affirmation of your posts.}

when i was in paris, i went to notre dame, and when i was in poland, we went to many cathedrals, but the one that sticks out was one that was nearly decimated by bombs in world war II and later rebuilt.

thinking of those, of how long they took to build, of how much renovation they now require, just awes me. i can't imagine spending decades laboring for the sake of a single building. but those buildings provide a solemn, reverent air i think we oft omit today. and i'm thankful for that.