Visual Art in the Drama of Salvation


By James Patrick Reid


Published originally in the Saint Austin Review, Volume 17, No. 1 (January/February 2017)



Biblical Background: Beauty, Chaos, and the Victory of Christ


             “What can be known about God is manifest to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Romans 1:20). Saints John Chrysostom and John Damascene understood these words of Paul as referring particularly to the beauty visible in creation, the original beauty, which was not wholly lost to us when we turned from God and our minds were darkened. The creation was subjected to futility and corruption (Romans 8:20), but not destroyed. God keeps it in being by his almighty power, and his conservation and governance of the creation is the secret of its beauty even in its fallen state. If the devil had his way, the earth would fall completely back into a formless void.

In scriptural imagery, the bastion of the demons -- the formless void, the dark abyss where monsters dwell -- is deep water. In the beginning, the Spirit of God moved over the waters to bring order out of chaos.  In the end, the Lord will banish the abyss from the earth; the sea will be no more (Revelation 21:1). Meanwhile, in his passion and resurrection, the paschal mystery into which we are baptized, the Lord divides the sea by his strength; he breaks the heads of the dragons in the waters (Psalm 74:13).

Christ sanctifies the waters by his descent into the Jordan, an anticipation of his death. The illumined water becomes in turn an instrument of salvation; and, as the Eastern Church sings on the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism,  “today mystical waters water all creation.” In the victory of Christ, the dark, formless abysses are filled with light, and the transformation of all creation is revealed: “Behold, I make all things new.” The redemption of man begins with the purification and redemption of matter, in the blessing of the water in which he is baptized, as the Lord “works salvation in the midst of the earth” (Psalm 74:12).

            As God’s sustaining, governing and saving power have always been operative in creation, even so beauty, though dimmed by the fall, has been continually present in nature to lead men to God. Visual art -- in which the artist plunges into rudimentary matter to give it form and evoke light -- is beautiful when it magnifies this divine conservation and providential ordering of creation. Beauty in nature and in art is never self-sufficient; it whispers a promise of ultimate fulfillment. Beauty is always a grace pointing to the victory of Christ.


Beauty in Art: Divine Conservation as a Continual Action


            Look at this still life painted by Andre Derain. The rhythmically varied strokes of white and gray paint dancing upon the black ground express what Derain called the virtue of objects – that is, the power that operates within things to make them stand out from nothingness. This is what theologians call the divine conservation of creatures. Nothing exists unless God acts within it, sustaining it by his power. There is no such thing as inertia of being; it is a constant pulse. Existence is an act, and can only be expressed in art dynamically. The correlation of art with theology is easily seen in the case of this still life because the painting is simplified; but the same virtue can be found in any masterpiece, no matter how elaborate and subtle the rendering.

Notice how the strokes and shapes, the intervals and accents, lead our eyes over the surface of the canvas and through space, so that we find some objects closer and others further away. Even within a single object, parts of it are nearer than others, and the object pushes out in various directions against nothingness. We experience a masterpiece kinesthetically, in terms of movement, because a masterpiece is true to nature, and existence is an act; it is happening thanks to God’s continual sustaining action. The keener one’s appreciation for visual art, the more one can feel such movement imaginatively in one’s own body as one looks at the work.

We are saved in and through the body, not from the body. Christian spirituality -- with its sacraments and sacramentals, rituals, postures for prayer, ascetical disciplines, works of mercy, and belief in the sanctification of matter -- is centered in the body and expressed through movement. Even methods of contemplative prayer which stress stillness (hesychia) use the breath and the heartbeat to draw the mind down into the region of the heart, to experience there one’s total dependence upon God – even, and especially, for one’s very existence.


Being as Communion


We are saved not as isolated bodies, but rather as members of the one Body of Christ, and in interrelation with everyone and everything else. Following Christ, we discover that all our deeds and words, and even our most secret thoughts, have consequences for others. This too, is reflected in art. Nothing in a painting is realized apart from everything else in the picture. Every form, every shape, every color, responds to all the others. For every action (every movement felt within a form, or from one form to another) there is an equal and opposite reaction, and all the elements coexist in dynamic equilibrium. Let us see how this plays out in a seascape by Gustave Courbet, his "Cliffs at Etretat."



See the two cliff faces: the near one warm in tone, with horizontal striations and a downward droop; the far one cooler with vertically soaring plane changes. A dagger of bright sand pries the two apart spatially, and also tethers the right-hand edge of the near cliff to the lower right corner of the canvas, pulling down the corner of the cliff (and accounting for the droop). The sand in turn is weighed down by the dark shapes of the boats.

An opposing movement is introduced by the foreground shadow moving in from the left. It nudges the beach, and then its darkness is picked up by the big and little boats with their grace-note shadows, and echoed in the dark bases of the cliffs. The cumulative effect of these dark shapes is to set in motion a counter-clockwise fan-like movement (in balanced tension with the downward tug of the sand), from beach to waves to clouds. Notice how the sterns of the boats rise up to the right in accordance with this movement. The uppermost clouds descend diagonally to the left, leading to the dark shape that surmounts the near cliff.

The light vertical plane in the distant cliff, in the central vertical axis of the canvas, is the central pole of this great “carousel.” The shaded plane of cliff immediately to its right struggles to resist the circulation, but part of it splinters off due to the overwhelming force Courbet has tapped into, making a thunderous cracking sound. This is a pictorial event expressing the sustaining and governing power at work within nature.

Many artists have painted these cliffs at Etretat, and Courbet himself did so a number of times. An artist painting from observation must find some inner reason for the forms to be just as they are, and no two artists will find the same reasons, nor will the same artist find the same reasons on different days. This is Courbet's most masterful painting of these cliffs. He has succeeded in expressing, in the very forms, the shapes and colors on his canvas, a world whose vital forces are felt from within, as organically and immediately as we experience our own limbs.

The canvas magnifies the spiritual depth of nature. Every being and activity in nature, and the being and activity of nature as a whole, spring from the one activity of God. Yet the being and activity of each part of nature is truly its own and distinct from God’s action, though inseparable from it and impossible without it. We see this mystery reflected in biology as well as in art, for the life and activity of each cell in an organism is distinct and to some degree spontaneous, while depending upon the life of the organism as a whole. Applying this biological understanding to art can greatly assist our appreciation, for a masterpiece is like an organism.

            Neither Derain nor Courbet was, as far as we know, a Christian believer. They were responding to nature as they painted – feeling and responding deeply, not copying nature’s appearance. But for whatever reasons (the prejudice of the times, worldly habits) they did not follow their pictorial insights to their logical metaphysical conclusions. Likewise a scientist holding a materialist world view may fail to see where the order he discovers in nature is leading. But both the scientist and the artist do work which points to the “eternal power and Godhead” of Romans 1:20.


Sacred Art

              Grace perfects nature; it does not abolish it. The artist who believes in Christ is obliged to be as true to nature as any other artist who does sincere pictorial work. He may do more, but he may not do less. The forms and space of the painting must unfold kinesthetically as a unified body, a symphony of elements. What distinguishes a work of sacred Christian painting is that the picture is composed to convey -- by the specific way its forms move -- some truth of the Faith.



Consider Beato Angelico’s fresco depicting Saint Lawrence distributing alms. This picture uses a method of perspective drawing in which receding lines converge toward a point which stands for infinite distance. Paradoxically, this infinite distance is also a point in the picture plane, and it governs everything that occurs in the picture. Thus infinite distance and the picture plane (which stands for the viewer’s consciousness) are reconciled. Moreover, the point toward which all the perspective lines converge is also the point from which the scene is projected forward onto the plane of the viewer’s consciousness. In other words, the infinite is both the source from which everything comes and the goal toward which everything is drawn. For Leon Batista Alberti, who invented the method, and for artists such as Fra Angelico and Leonardo da Vinci, who used it, the converging point of perspective stands for God.

A row of figures stretches across the foreground in the lower half of Angelico’s fresco, while architecture fills the upper half. The receding columns of the nave of the church (the old Saint Peter’s Basilica) converge toward the infinity of God. What they encounter in the deep space is the apse, the place where God-with-us offers himself in sacrifice upon the altar. Marvelously, the shape of the apse continues down into the figure of Saint Lawrence, as the two form a rhythmic unit. Here the general theological significance of perspective takes on a particular Christological and ecclesiological meaning. The holy deacon who communes with God at the altar brings Christ’s charity to the needy. Lawrence has traversed the nave of the church where Saint Peter is buried. That nave with its many columns represents the tradition of the Church from its very founding. Thus the saint mediates God, through the Church’s tradition, to the needy people gathered before the basilica’s door. In his luminous character as a Christian and an ordained minister, and in his loving action, he unites the vertical and horizontal dimensions of Christian life. His dalmatic is decorated with flames; the flames upon which he shall suffer martyrdom; but even more, the fire of divine love which unites his sacrifice with the sacrifice of his Lord always present on the altar in that apse.




Before we know Christ, before we come to the baptismal pool, God is already at work in us, drawing us to himself. Human nature is such that Christ can be united to it. When art is true to its own nature, when it responds with wonder to the things God has made, as it has in countless works from prehistory to the present, the Wisdom of God is already informing it. This makes possible the baptism of art, its incorporation in the Church’s life and worship. True sacred art -- by Giotto, Leonardo, Andrei Rublev, and so many others -- follows the same foundational pictorial laws, respecting the divine conservation and governance of creation, as we saw exemplified in Derain’s and Courbet’s work. But it does more. The imagination of the sacred artist, attuned to the scriptures, the liturgy, and the whole living tradition of the Church, and exercised in prayer and asceticism, gives birth to works whose forms communicate the Gospel and breathe the Spirit of Christ. Art is fulfilled by grace.