Praying with Art

Some new age philosophies say that the five senses are the tip of the iceberg and that there are deeper realities beyond our bodily senses. I think St. Ignatius would agree. Indeed, he stresses the importance of the physical senses and feelings—gifts God has given us—in tapping more deeply into our understanding of God and those deeper realities ourselves. And while Ignatian prayer is best known as the prayer of the interior imagination, of the mind’s eye, it can also be activated from the exterior visual sense, through art.

Albrecht Dürer - The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin - The Flight into Egypt - [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsArt has long been a way the Church has tapped into the divine. For centuries artists and sculptors have been commissioned to add this divine life to grand cathedrals and churches. The Vatican houses thousands of pieces of art in its museums, which are visited by millions of people every year.

What’s the big deal? In one sense, art can unlock the secret depths of the heart. Though a painting stimulates the visual sense, there’s something about a painting that somehow touches the more interior parts of us too.

I once had a group of university students meditate on a painting by Albrecht Dürer, of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt. What in the picture stirred them? One noticed the intentionality of the donkey’s stride. Another was touched by Joseph’s calm yet concerned look back at Mary and the baby Jesus. Mary’s clothing is rippling in an apparent breeze, yet the baby is asleep. The small family seems calm, but there’s that unspoken sense of fear for the child’s life.

Such meditation can be a powerful experience.

Aristotle thought that an image or color being perceived by the visual sense changes us physically. There is something of the image that becomes part of us. Perhaps he was onto something deeper!

Whatever the painting, even if it’s abstract, praying with art offers an opportunity to reflect on different subjects, note our feelings, and tap more into the divine.

You might also be interested in the Arts and Faith series by Loyola Press.

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Andy Otto
Andy Otto is an Ignatian blogger and spiritual director. He currently works in adult faith formation and retreat direction at a Jesuit parish and retreat center in Atlanta, GA, where he lives with his wife and daughter. Andy is the author of God Moments and holds a master’s degree in theology and ministry from Boston College.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Amen! Agree…which is why, when asked about the “next big thing” on social media, I zoomed in on “visual social media.” I believe what people curate (e.g. on Pinterest) as well as what they create (e.g., on Instagram) reveals a bit (or a lot) of their soul; how they see God in all things. Here’s the essay: http://bit.ly/18lAP1H

  2. I wanted to picture out Jesus face in art but i cannot find a picture of Him in my room where I set to reflect, so instead i look at the Crucifix in my altar, picturing it, then closed my eyes as I continue to meditate in silence and in my usual Ignatian way of exercises. In a little later Jesus painting of His face begin flushing in my vision as though tracing those paintings of Jesus that I used to paint in my younger days. It was like a charcoal and pencil painting that I used to paint. But they’re fading and gone out of time, i thought. Soon another picture occurs in my vision, and now it was a clear picture of His fresh wounded bloody face, so alive… Yet, i thought and asked him; why these picture Lord?

  3. True. But if you have an app store you like, I think you can look up the actual app: art/y/fact.Xn . I know it is available as android and and Apple product.

  4. Sigh. While I pick up on a person’s character and other things in a photograph I’ve never been able to “get” anything from a painting. The proofreader in me wants always to note instead, for example, how in some earlier century paintings the faces of every subject in the work are all the same. Apparently artists of that time had to fit into a certain societal decorum and if they didn’t they were driven out. While I truly enjoyed learning all of that through the essays of my writing students who studied art, understanding of the works themselves missed my understanding.
    Sigh.

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