The Artist makes the Invisible Visible

Whenever something is portrayed as so utterly itself, it cannot help revealing something of the Other

To see God in the everyday, the divine in the worldly, the transcendent in the ordinary – that is what this chapter is about (indeed what the whole book is about) but here we call on the artist to help us achieve this kind of seeing.  The emphasis will be on the artist as painter, and as painter of secular pictures. How do the works of the famous artists of our time, like ‘secular parables’, speak about God? Even where the artist has no theological interests, how, in the light of faith, does the work empower the viewer to see things differently, especially, for the Christian, something of the numinous, of the face of God?

In his Letter to Artists (1999) Pope John Paul II wrote, ‘None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands. A glimmer of that feeling has shone so often in your eyes when – like the artists of every age – captivated by the hidden power of sounds and words, colours and shapes, you have admired the work of your inspiration, sensing in it some echo of the mystery of creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has wished to associate you . . . With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of his own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in his creative power.’

The Pope went on to emphasise that ‘Every genuine art form in its way – from writers, painters, sculptors, poets, film-makers, playwrights, composers, architects, musicians, actors – is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world . . . That is why (the Incarnation) of truth was bound from the beginning to stir the interest of artists, who by their very nature are alert to every epiphany of the inner beauty of things.’  Each work of art, he said, ‘which explores the everyday, the darkest depth of the soul’ is ‘an appeal to mystery’, a ‘genuine source of theology’, a ‘moment of grace’, ‘a kind of sacrament making present the Incarnation in one or other of its aspects.’

Small Incarnations

Because God became incarnate in creation and in humanity, it is in these time-and-space realities we find a way into Mystery. In this chapter I rely chiefly on T. J. Gorringe’s acclaimed Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenges of Art (Yale University Press 2011). Gorringe argues that great art can function as a ‘secular parable’ leading viewers to reflect on the reality and presence of God in the world.  He does this by helping them ‘to read each painting theologically, and, in fact, to see everything differently’.  He writes from the context of a theology of creation, a spirituality of nature and grace.

He refers to many theologians, especially Karl Barth, who wrote that creation is good because it is the product of divine joy. ‘It is the goodness of God that takes shape in it, and God’s good pleasure is both the foundation and the end of creation . . . There is no such thing as merely secular history’. The secular is not ‘godless’.  The truly secular is compatible with the sacred if is not, indeed, the sacred ‘per se’, he wrote (Earthly Visions, p13).

It is not so much about inserting or including a hint of heaven that makes a painting, a dance, a piece of music ’religious’; it is in capturing the utter truth of anything earthly that, unknowingly, provides an experience of the divine.  John Ruskin wrote that ‘the artist is gifted with the ability to see and represent in his work the divine origin of all created works, and so to be able to direct the less perceptive to see it for themselves.’

In a lecture Christian artist Wendy Beckett spoke about Sally Warner, an American contemporary painter, who draws trees, brushwood, stone – and they are luminous with God.  She also talked about William Bailey, another, older American, who paints jugs and kitchen vessels and a wooden table with a sacramental strength that is overpowering. ‘Avigdor Arikha’, Beckett went on, ‘an Israeli, can show us a bare wall, a broom, bottles, young women, rooms and stairways, or scattered shoes and socks, and the viewer is seized by the wonder of what is seen. No attempt is made to glorify the shoes and socks. But the artist has seen their simple quiddity, their truth to their own nature, their materiality, as purely beautiful.’

Whenever art captures the core being, the truth, the ‘isness’ or interiority of anything, there too is a moment of divine revelation. It is only in the authenticity of ‘what is’ that the face of the Christian God can be glimpsed. The radical role of the artist is to keep reminding us of that. Where the Church fails, the artist is often the one who brings a graced seeing into a superficial looking, a blessed hearing into a shallow listening.

Revealing the essence

Philosopher Merleau-Ponty believed that the most profound artists may have something to say about the grace, in which, according to the Christian tradition, the whole of reality is suspended, sustained, ‘as a singer sustains her song, but which it requires revelation to become aware of – to see’. The angel has to come to stir the water before we can wake to incarnation, to put fire to the stubble so as to glimpse the infinite horizon. (Earthly Visions, p103)

In his Painting and the Absence of Grace Oliver Soskice has this to say about the artist’s efforts to draw out the essence of something, to touch the mystery of life itself. This, for the Christian, is the exploration into God.  Soskice writes, ‘Inexpressibly other from the nature of every being, existence is received as the unreachable beckoning horizon within stones, the sky, brickwork rained upon, daylight, pools of reflecting water, apples in a bowl. A painter may spend a lifetime trying to translate this strange, innermost utterance of visible things.’ (Modern Painters 4.1, Spring 1991)

Cezanne became a regular church-goer towards the end of his life. He did not attempt religious themes in his paintings. He concentrated upon landscape and still life. Yet, Gorringe tells us, through his delight in the colour and shapes of the world, he delights also in God. For Kandinski, Cezanne saw the inner life in everything, and believed that colours came from the roots of the world. He tried to find colours for grace. Van Gogh said he could not look at a picture by Rembrandt without believing in God.

While much has been written about the gift of beauty provided by the vision and work of artists such as Turner and Monet, their contribution has been more profoundly described as their cleansing of ‘the doors of perception’.  ‘They have sensed’, according to Gorringe, ‘and help others to see, the glory patent in the ordinary, the transfiguration of the real . . . Most of the time we are unable to see that; part of the abiding appeal of landscape painting is that, at its best, it opens our eyes, as the eyes of the disciples were opened, so see the ordinary in a completely different way’. (Earthly Visions, p135)

‘Art’, says Rowan Williams, in his Grace and Necessity ‘in one sense dispossesses us of our habitual perception and restores a reality, a dimension that necessarily escapes our conceptuality and our control. It makes the world strange.’ (Earthly Visions, p139) With reference to still life paintings Gorringe argues that since they emerged at the end of the fifteenth century they have set before us a vision of creation as benefit, as grace, charged with grandeur, which invests our ordinary mundane lives, mediating the presence of God.

‘Painters’, Gorringe writes, ‘are those who see such signs and help the rest of us to see them.  In The Bright Field the poet R.S. Thomas dwells on one of his favourite images; when the sun streaming through clouds, picks out one field among many. Like the poet, the painter renders visible as a phenomenon what no one had ever seen before, because he or she manages, being the first to do that every time, to resist the given enough to get it to show itself’ . . . (Earthly Visions, p14)

It is not by holy additions to ‘secular’ art that the numinous is expressed; it is by one’s understanding of the secular in the first place. For example, as Gorringe so succinctly puts it, ‘precisely because the creaturely world is, for the Christian, the creation of God, and precisely because, in theological terms, creation is the expression of grace, it has also, as such, and as Barth put it, “its own lights and truths, and therefore, its own speech and words” to reveal its divine origin and destiny. The theatre, the gallery, the poetry-reading room have become the places of pilgrimage, the second book of revelation’. (Earthly Visions, p14)

The various faces and interpretations of reality in the work of an artist, are, for the Christian, privileged windows into the beyond and the within, incarnate epiphanies of the divine. Secular parables then, auditory and visible ones, are part of God’s revelation. They are this without losing their secular character or undergoing any inner transformation. ‘The aim of the artist’, writes Flannery O’Connor, ‘is to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe . . . The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality’.

Hidden Meanings

In his book Gorringe examines representative secular paintings of the most significant types, explaining how each one expresses something of a deeper, divine creator.  He makes us look again at the hidden meanings of the secular. We the wonderful theology of a Barth, a Tillich, a Rahner, an Aquinas to transform our consciousness when we pause to gaze at the beauty of a Boticelli, a Rothko, a Monet, a Turner, a Millet, and when we linger to listen to a Mozart, a Shubert, a Vivaldi, a Verdi.

‘To read secular art theologically,’ writes Gorringe at the end of his book, ‘is to insist on questioning, on the dimension of depth, to resist premature efforts at closure of meaning. It is to situate art within such a tradition of questioning and meaning . . . It invites us to reflect more deeply on the mystery of existence . . . The crowds that throng to art galleries and exhibitions go, I suspect, not just in search of a meaning they do not find elsewhere in society, and which the church no longer conveys for them, but because they are interested in these rumours  (of angels everywhere), because there are parables which still speak of the elusive but pressing mystery of the world . . . The whole world is, as George Macleod liked to say of Iona, “a thin place”. All that is, is the product of the divine Word, which is to say the divine imagination and joy, loving reality into being.’ (Earthly Visions, pp192-193)

Roman Catholic philosophers Bernard Lonergan and Jacques Maritain are quoted in The Critical Spirit (Columba Press, 2003), emphasising, in their references to the process of education, the necessary role of a free exploration of art and of the emotions. Our presence to great art, they said, is what keeps our lives and the world in tune with God. Lonergan claimed that ‘the life we are living is a product of artistic creation’ and that it is on the artistic, symbolic level that we live our full range of humanity, discovering that we can become ‘emergent, ecstatic, standing out . . . in originating freedom’. (p207)

Maritain consistently emphasised the urgent need for the student in all of us to be nourished in the banquet of art so as to guide people ‘in the evolving dynamism through which they shape themselves as human beings’, bringing to realisation what is already God-given in their nature. In Education at the Crossroads (Yale University Press), he warns against squeezing the soul into the limited shapes we teach. He pleads for a respect, through art, for ‘the sense of each one’s innermost essence and internal resources, a sort of loving attention to their mysterious identity that no techniques can reach.’ (p9)

True art, Richard Harries believes, always has a spiritual dimension. ‘Yet’ he writes, ‘if religion tries to turn it into propaganda, the spiritual could slip away. Works of art inescapably witness, by their truth and beauty, to their fount and origin in God himself. Yet religion, always in danger of being corrupted and corrupting, does not have this art at its beck and call. It cannot use it for its own ends.’ (p113)

Nevertheless, there is a very neglected theology of nature and grace, of a sacramental vision, of ‘the catholic imagination’ that provides a wonderful context for all we have been considering in this chapter. It is orthodox, traditional, mystical and espoused by theologians from the very beginning, and is once again making a welcome and timely appearance.

As we mentioned at the beginning, the artist may or may not be a religious believer. From an artistic point of view that does not affect the spirituality of the created work. What does matter is a kind of ruthless authenticity and truthfulness, what Harries calls a ‘fundamental seriousness, a fierce artistic integrity’.  Without this it will be impossible to find the beauty in the damaged, the truth in the twisted, the invisible in the visible, the grace in everything.