What is your favorite Christian painting or sculpture?
This is a really really hard question to answer. There are a lot of factors that go into my appreciation of any piece of art that it’s hard to say that I have a definitive “best” piece that I love. What I will do is give you a few things that I look for in art, and an example of a work that I think exemplify that element well. I would also like to hear from all of you. if you have a favorite work of art please let me know in the comments below!
1) Theological Content – many have made the observation that religious art can not only be seen but read. Religious images have their own language in symbol which articulates a message. I love religious images that have depth in their use of symbol and say something important in their portrayal of the faith. You can read more about how these pictures can be deciphered in The Art of Faith: A Guide to Understanding Christian Images by Judith Couchman. One example of this that I love is the icon of Jesus’ baptism. I can look at almost any version of this icon for hours just thinking about the interplay of symbols.
2) Beauty – It probably goes without saying that beauty is an important aspect of art. In beauty I think we can capture a glimpse of the life of God. I am always amazed at the ability of some artists to capture a moment of beauty in canvas or marble in ways that I could never have imagined. This is one of my favorite parts of walking through an art museum. Sometimes you stumble upon a picture that catches your eye and your heart and seems to breathe a glimpse of heaven into the room. It’s one of the most compelling arguments I have found that we are creatures created in the image of God. God is the author of beauty and somehow has invited us to become collaborators. One image of beauty that I love is Henry Ossawa Tanner’s depiction of The Annunciation. I can’t explain it, but I find it captivating.
4) Challenge – One thing I really like in a work of art is to find myself challenged by it. I believe art can convert us in a way that nothing else can. Artists often function as prophets, and art sometimes serves as our conscience. I highly value a piece of art which confronts me. I need images that push me to love more deeply and generously and to serve more whole heatedly. There are a number of works of art that can do that, but most recently I have found inspiration in the Homeless Jesus Sculpture by Timothy P. Schmalz, which helps open my eyes to the presence of Christ veiled in the distressing disguise of the poor all around me.
5) Emotion – Art has an amazing ability to stir up emotions within me. One of the things I treasure is an image that conveys emotion. The amazing thing about Jesus is that God chose to reveal who he was in the language of flesh and blood that we all live and understand. Because of this I am particularly susceptible to portrayals of Christ that demonstrate how incarnation he truly is. One powerful example of this is the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. In it Christ is depicted as having just jumped into his mother’s arms after a vision of the instruments of his crucifixion has frightened him. One sandal hangs dangling from his foot as representation of the startled leap which resulted in the sacred embrace depicted. Powerful stuff!
6) Craftsmanship – There is something that has to be said about craftsmanship. There is often a sense of awe I experience when standing before a painting or sculpture. I am humbled by the skill through which the artist was able to bend raw materials into forms of elegance and beauty . I am filled with wonder at the imagination that was able to form the impetus of what I see before me, and the skill which was able to bring the imagination to life. One of the works that I am continually in awe of it the Pietà by Michelangelo. The life that given to the hard stone is a thing of wonder. It’s truly a remarkable achievement.
I don’t think there are too many works of art that do all of the things I mentioned, but they are all things that are valuable to me. So I guess I don’t have a single work of art that’s my favorite. I hope that giving you a few examples of things that I love helps. What religious art do you love.. and why?