Sometimes in my Bible-reading, I desire to slow down in order to imaginatively enter a single scene or to deeply consider a single theological idea. In moments like these, visual art is a welcome companion, for it captivates my imagination and slows me to a meditative pace.
For centuries, artists have drawn inspiration from biblical stories. Some scenes have been painted again and again. The Crucifixion of Christ is perhaps the most common subject in all of Western art. Images of Adam and Eve in the garden, the binding of Isaac, the Annunciation, the Madonna and Child, and the pietà, which depicts Jesus descended from the cross and lying in Mary’s lap, line the walls of countless churches and museums worldwide, rendered in painting, sculpture, textiles, and other media by some of the world’s most celebrated artists. Visual art can be a powerful companion as we read the Bible. It can awaken our imaginations, illuminating new insights in familiar passages. When you come across art that depicts a biblical passage, consider meditating on that artwork as part of your Bible-reading practice.
Pairing Art and Scripture
If you live in a town with an art museum or gallery, take a leisurely visit to identify artworks that might aid your Bible reading. You may come across art that is representational, meaning that you will recognize human figures, a landscape, or a still life scene within the painting. Other art may be abstract. Both forms can help to illuminate your Bible reading. If you don’t live in a town that holds much art, save this activity for your next vacation—add a museum or gallery visit to your itinerary. And if you’re not able to see art in person, try exploring the many resources that are available online. Most museums have digital catalogs with images of the art in their collections.
While you’re browsing, look for art that reminds you of passages you’ve read in Scripture. You may discover something pretty on-the-nose, such as a painting titled Expulsion from the Garden of Eden that calls to mind Genesis 3, or Rachel Weeping which recalls Jeremiah 31. You may find an artwork that doesn’t evoke a singular passage but reminds you of a biblical idea. The historical trope memento mori has generated countless artworks exploring the subject of human frailty, and may call to mind Isaiah 40: “All flesh is like grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field…The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (verses 6b, 8).
Word and Image, Side by Side
Once you’ve found a few images to pair with Bible reading, find a comfortable place to read where you can see the art, whether that’s on a gallery bench or at home with a postcard from the gift shop or an image pulled from online. Read the text, then spend a few minutes looking at the artwork. Read the text again. When you consider the two side by side, how does the artwork make you think differently about the text? If the art depicts human figures, look at the faces of the figures. Do their expressions reveal anything about the character's relationship with God? If the art is abstract, what mood does it draw you into? How does it make you feel? Does the Scripture passage make you feel the same way, or differently? If differently, what can you learn from that dissonance? Prayerfully consider questions like these.
One of my favorite artworks is Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac. It depicts the story told in Genesis 22, in which God commands Abraham to kill his son Isaac as an offering to God. This troubling command is animated on the faces of Caravaggio’s Abraham and Isaac. The deep creases in Abraham’s brow and the terror in Isaac’s gaping mouth help me to experience the horror of this bizarre passage. But there is relief—a young man, whom the text names an angel, grabs Abraham’s arm and points toward the thicket, where a ram emerges in soft light. The text tells us that this ram serves as substitute for Isaac, and Isaac is spared. Look carefully at the face of the ram. The poignant expression on its face makes it look almost human. It bears pity and anguish, as if it were Christ in Gethsemane, anticipating his own moment of sacrifice.
As you set out in this spiritual practice, here are some artworks to get you started. Marc Chagall, a Russian-born Jewish painter who lived in the twentieth century, created several series of biblical art throughout his lifetime. Among his Genesis series is the large painting Noah and the Rainbow. Pair this with Genesis 9:8-17 for a meditation on the flood narrative.
Italian artist Pericle Fazzini, who also lived and worked in the mid-twentieth century, created an enormous work of art for the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall in Rome in 1977 called Resurrection. This sculpture, towering at 23 feet tall and 66 feet wide and made of cast bronze and copper alloy, depicts Christ rising from the dead, with a host of other bodies rising with him. A small reproduction of this work is held now at Rome’s Vatican Museum. Consider this sculpture side-by-side with 1 Corinthians 15.
Makoto Fujimura, a Japanese-American artist who incorporates a traditional Japanese technique called nihonga into his contemporary art practice, created a series called The Four Gospels. Read John 11, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, while meditating on The Tears of Christ. Read Matthew 6 while meditating on Consider the Lilies. Read Luke 15 while beholding Prodigal God. And turn to John 1 while looking at In the Beginning.
Visual art can be arresting, in the sense that it can stop us in our tracks and demand our attention. Poignant renderings of facial expression, an intoxicating color, symbolism that invites our interpretation—these virtues of visual art can help us to slow down long enough to glean something we might otherwise miss in a biblical text. The practice of visual meditation may open new pathways toward intimacy with God through the biblical narrative.
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