Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Power of Great Art

Many years ago I spent a day at the Art Institute of Chicago. Among the highlights of my day were seeing Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte, Picasso’s The Old Guitarist (blue man with a guitar) and Monet’s haystack series. But one moment from that day was more powerful than any piece of art and, for me, illustrates the power of art to speak across time, culture and societal barriers.

As I left one of the rooms a man stopped me. He was a large, burly man, who looked like he should be on a loud motorcycle somewhere or in a logging truck back home, rather than in an art museum, and I was very surprised when he asked me if I was a Christian. Not sure what was coming next, I said yes, then asked why he wanted to know. He led me over to a painting and told me it made him want to cry. Then he asked me why. Why would he want to cry?

Because he had just come face to face with Christ’s sacrifice, depicted by an artist who had painted it almost 350 years before. At 57-3/4 x 87-1/16 inches, Guercino’s The Entombment is a imposing painting showing the placing of Christ’s body into a stone sepulchre. Baroque art is marked by strong lighting and drama, and this painting is no different: Mary stands behind Christ’s body, weeping. The strong emotions of the painting greatly affected the man talking to me, and he wanted to know why he couldn’t just walk away from the image. Why did it affect him so greatly? I know we talked about the sacrifice Jesus made for us, but I really don’t remember everything we talked about. But I do know that his visit to the museum that day probably changed the rest of his life.

Such is the power of great art. Notice that I didn’t say just “art”, or “all art”, but “great art”. Of course not even all great art is going to have such a profound effect on our lives as salvation, but great art does have the power to speak of eternal truths, including salvation. While the term masterpiece is frequently used to refer to an artist’s greatest accomplishments, it also refers to those pieces that have a voice beyond their own time. The Mona Lisa is a masterpiece because of Leonardo da Vinci’s technical skill in painting it. Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People is a masterpiece because it speaks to us of the desire for freedom that crosses class lines, which we can understand today as easily as the viewers who saw it during those turbulent times in France. (Indeed, they understood it so well that the painting was removed because from its original display because it was considered inflammatory.)

Art, like literature, transcends our own lives and moments in time, sometimes giving us insight that we don’t grasp in our daily tasks. For many centuries from antiquity on, art was primarily tied to the church and used to teach Bible stories and to impress the majesty of the Trinitarian God. During the Renaissance art changed, and subject matter was no longer exclusively religious, but still concerned with matters of the human condition. Unfortunately, many of us are no longer in a position to understand the stories or messages in these pieces of art because so much cultural literacy is lost; but while modern viewers may be stumped by many of the stories and symbols, contemporary viewers would have been familiar with all the references and understood the meanings. With a little understanding of these stories and of the symbols used, we can usually begin to grasp the deeper meanings of many pieces of art. For example, you can usually find Peter in paintings because he carries a key. Luke is many times accompanied by a bull and knowing why there is a bull in the middle of a painting, seemingly out of place, helps make the image less strange.

Last semester I asked my students which of the images we had looked at was their favorite and why. Two pieces stood out above the rest. One was a favorite because of the drama and high emotion of the scene (Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey, a historical event that several of them were familiar with), which was not a big surprise. The other favorite was a surprise to me, though. Albrecht Durer’s Knight, Death and the Devil is a complex engraving of a knight on horseback passing the figures of death and the devil. Students particularly liked how the knight did not show fear at the other two figures and pointed out that neither do we when we know Christ. They also pointed out the little dog, which represents faithfulness, trotting at the knight’s heels on his journey through life. None of this subject matter had been discussed in class; instead students had been given the tools and they understood the message on their own—a message that we encounter in many places in our spiritual walk, to be sure, but what a powerful visual put to an abstract truth. Such is the power of great art

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