Art, in many ways, is a form of hospitality. The artist, expressing a sense of vulnerability in presenting his or her work, invites the viewer to experience and receive what is being presented. In this sense, art is also a form of dialogue, for it evokes a response and thus opens a conversation.
For centuries, art has helped communicate the truth and beauty of the Gospel, offering a universally accessible gateway into Christianity. Earlier this year, Pope Francis praised artists during his general audience, saying it was through artists that we understand beauty and that 'without beauty we cannot understand the Gospel.'
As museums and galleries around the world closed their doors due to the pandemic, it necessitated a reimagining of how art could be experienced by the general public. New and improved online virtual tours have been offered (including by our own National Gallery of Victoria), with museum curators sharing a range of artworks complete with accompanying soundtracks.
The Vatican Museum this year partnered with Vatican News to offer weekly reflections on art from its collection. Each masterpiece is accompanied by writings and comments by various popes. By sharing these religious artworks, the project seeks to create a sense of communion during a time of uncertainty and isolation. It’s a reminder that art is an invitation to reflect on universally human concepts: joy, life, death, suffering, redemption. All of these human experiences unite us not only to each other but to our Lord.
This is what Rev. Dr Elio Capra sdb also seeks to communicate in his new blog, ‘Art and Soul: Uncovering the Spiritual in Art’. Launched earlier this year, the blog is not offered as an academic exercise but rather as a vehicle for experiencing beauty and deepening our spirituality.
‘I am presenting from my heart, the ways that art has touched me and what I see and experience when looking at art.’
By his own admission, Fr Elio is not an art historian nor does he approach the works as such. ‘While I may discuss the techniques and history related to an artwork, my primary focus is the spiritual dimension that the work opens and the way it provokes reflection and prayer.’
In this way, Fr Elio is inviting viewers into a dialogue with some of the world’s most famous religious artworks by Jean-François Millet, Vincent Van Gogh, Caravaggio and others.
As a member of the Department of Systematic Theology and Department of Pastoral and General Studies at Catholic Theological College, Fr Elio lectures in liturgy, sacramental theology and is well-known for his use of art in class. His main interests are the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and the relationship between theology and art – the latter explored in CTC units including ‘Reimagining Creation and Incarnation Through Art’.
In each of the video reflections, Fr Elio begins by exploring the life of the artist, the techniques used and the story behind the piece. He then offers insights into the particular biblical passage that inspired the painting and how it connects to everyday life.
Reflecting on one of Van Gogh’s lesser-known versions of ‘The Sower’, Fr Elio points out the small array of blossoms growing from an imposing tree in the foreground of the painting.
‘All farmers know that in order to produce abundant fruit, trees must be pruned regularly. The same principle applies to the Word of God in our lives. The Word of God is meant to produce fruit in each one of us: love, compassion, humility, openness, forgiveness, acceptance, inclusivity.
This is beautiful stuff you may say, but for that to grow within us we need a pruning. The Word of God can prune us of our pride, our self-centeredness, prejudice, the residues of our anger and resentment.’ Undoubtedly, this time of isolation has forced us to find new ways of connecting – to each other and to the sacred. Thankfully, these art resources from the Vatican and Fr Elio offer accessible ways of doing just that.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli27 January 2021