Discernment, The Holy Spirit and Art

A reflection on one way that discerning the extraordinary in the ordinary is exemplified in Christian painting, old and new. Examples are shown from Sandro Botticelli, Roger van der Weyden, Stanley Spencer, Patti Wickman, and Joel Sheesely.

Recently, I have been reading Steven Guthrie’s new book Creator Spirit (don’t worry folks, a review of this book for Transpositions is forthcoming), and I have been thinking about his suggestion that living in the Holy Spirit is, at least in part, about imaginatively discerning the extraordinary in the ordinary.  This discernment is not, Guthrie is careful to point out, is not the same as seeing everything as ‘spiritual.’  According to Guthrie, discernment is not a matter of looking beyond physical appearances, but actually looking more deeply into them.

I was reminded that a great deal of Christian art does this sort of thing very well.  But given our highly sensitive historical and scientific consciousness, it is easy for us to overlook this very valuable aspect of the Christian tradition.  So often have I heard Christians lament the historical inaccuracies of a particular film or story, only to neglect that a very profound point is being made.  Judging a work of religious art purely on historical grounds is simply wrong, and the art historian Hans Rookmaaker offers a compelling reason why:

If we paint events ‘as they would have been seen’, they may well be interesting as history, but lose their true content, for there is no sense of their being things of importance for all history and for all mankind. [1]

His point is that showing the significance of any historical event is not simply a matter of getting all the details right.  Rather, to understand the significance of history it must be carefully, and imaginatively, discerned.

One way that Christian painters have sought to make the Gospel meaningful in their contemporary context is by allowing their contemporary setting to mix with the life of Jesus.  For example, the Italian painter Botticelli in his Crucifixion of 1497 shows Jesus on the cross, accompanied by Mary Magdalene and an angel, in front of the city of Florence.  This painting is a visual prayer as the cross and the angel in the foreground are present to save Florence from evil (symbolized by the red fox).  The Northern European artists also did this sort of thing very well.  Roger van der Weyden’s Annunciation (ca. 1440) clearly shows Mary in a European home and European dress.  By imaginatively transporting Mary to his time, van der Weyden can portray her as an example of devotion for his contemporaries.

More recent examples of painters who stand within this tradition can also be found, such as the British painter Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).  David Brown observes that the sense in Spencer’s paintings that the contemporary world is transformed by God’s presence corresponds to Spencer’s experience “from childhood onwards he had a very lively awareness of the presence of God in the everyday life of the village in which he was brought up, Cookham in Berkshire.”[2] In his painting Christ Carrying the Cross (1920) , Spencer shows us a busy street corner and building.  Jesus is actually difficult to find. The inability to find Jesus immediately in the painting may suggest the way in which modern society and work ethic distract us from the true meaning of life.  On the other hand, the visual identification of the cross-shaped ladders on the left side with the cross of Christ can also suggest that we can have an encounter with Christ on the cross even in our daily and ordinary tasks.

This tradition in Christian painting is an important example of discernment that does not merely look beyond physical appearances, but that actually looks more deeply into them.

[1] H. R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1970), 72.

[2] David Brown, “The Incarnation in Twentieth Century Art,” in Davis, Stephen T., Daniel Kendall SJ, and Gerald O’Collins SJ, eds., The Incarnation – An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Image Credits: Roger van der Weyden, Stanley Spencer, Patty Wickman, Joel Sheesley


  • Jim Watkins is the assistant editor and a regular contributor at Transpositions. Originally, Jim is from southern California and southeastern Texas, but sometimes he feels most at home in the landscape and coffee shops of the Pacific Northwest. He met his wife Emily at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he studied Studio Art (concentration in painting). For his PhD research, he is examining the relationship between divine and human creativity from the perspective of divine kenosis.

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  1. says: cbrewer

    Jonathan Quist’s work is another, albeit lesser known, example. I’m thinking of his Preparation (David/Goliath recast as racial struggle in the Church), My Way (Moses at the waters of Meribah) and Help Us Ford (a provocative retelling of The Last Supper, especially for Quist who lives in Michigan) in particular.

    Preparation: http://www.flickr.com/photos/quistjonathan/4379673051/in/photostream/

    My Way: http://www.flickr.com/photos/quistjonathan/4380425940/in/photostream/

    Help Us Ford: http://www.flickr.com/photos/quistjonathan/4379666863/in/photostream/

    And there are, of course, others. I mention several here: http://gospelthroughsharedexperience.blogspot.com/2011/03/gtse-in-contemporary-asian-art.html

    What fascinates me in each of these is their ability to speak a redemptive word through shared experience. In so doing they function as contextualized gospels, (re)told in a new and provocative visual language, a sort of language of immediacy that sneaks past the watchful dragons.

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Thanks for sharing these paintings! Yes, these are the kind of thing that I am trying to get at with this post. I especially love the “Help Us Ford” painting. It reminds me of Andy Worhol’s Last Supper paintings. I like your assessment that these paintings speak with a “language of immediacy that sneaks past the watchful dragons.”

  2. says: matt ballou

    jim, i like what you suggest about how the purely documentary can’t illumine the deeper experiences and meanings beyond facts. this reminds me of a great new yorker article about werner herzog where he talks about “ecstatic truth”.

    it really is worth the read. in it herzog defends his alterations in “documentary” films by suggesting that truth is found in the work being transformed “from ‘mere reportage’ to ‘the realm of poetry\'” and observes that “There is just a very shallow truth in facts, otherwise, the phone directory would be the Book of Books.”

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Matt, I think you are right to bring up documentary film as another genre where just relaying the facts is not enough. Thanks for the link to Werner Herzog’s article. I look forward to reading it, and I really want to see his recent documentary ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams.’

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