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Art and Contemplation
Art and Contemplation

Art Leads Us to the Depths

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Richard Rohr describes how art can serve as a gateway to mystical experience and deeper knowing: 

There must be a way to be both here and in the depth of here. Jesus is the here, Christ is the depth of here. This, in my mind, is the essence of incarnation, and the gift of contemplation. We must learn to love and enjoy things as they are, in their depth, in their soul, and in their fullness. Contemplation is the “second gaze” through which we see something in its particularity and yet also in a much larger frame. We know it by the joy it gives.    

Two pieces of art have given me this incarnational and contemplative insight. The first is called The Ascension of Christ by Hans von Kulmbach (c. 1480–1522). It portrays the two human feet of Jesus at the very top of a large painting of the Ascension. Most of the canvas is taken up by the apostles, who are drawn up with Christ through their eyes, as his feet move off the top of the painting, presumably into the spiritual realms. The image had a wonderful effect on me. I too found myself looking beyond the painting toward the ceiling of the art museum. It was a mystical moment—one that simultaneously took me beyond the painting and right back into the room where I was standing.  

The second piece of art is a small bronze statue of St. Francis, located in the upper basilica of Assisi, Italy. Created by a sculptor whose name is hidden, the statue shows Francis gazing down into the dirt with awe and wonder, which is quite unusual and almost shocking. The Holy Spirit, who is almost always pictured as descending from above, is pictured here as coming from below—even to the point of being hidden in the dirt! God is hidden in the dirt and mud instead of descending from the clouds. This is a major transposition of place. Once we know that the miracle of “Word made flesh” has become the very nature of the universe, we cannot help but be both happy and holy. What we first of all need is here!  

Both these pieces of art put the two worlds together, but from different perspectives. Yet in both images, it is the Divine that takes the lead in changing places. Maybe artists have easier access to this Mystery than many theologians. I doubt if we can see the image of God (imago Dei) in our fellow humans if we cannot first see it in rudimentary form in stones, in plants and flowers, in strange little animals, in bread and wine, and most especially cannot honor this objective divine image in ourselves. It is a full-body tune-up, this spiritual journey. It really ends up being all or nothing, here and then everywhere.   

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “The Artist’s Access to Mystery,” Oneing 12, no. 1, Art and Spirituality (Spring 2024): 36–37. Available in print and PDF download

Image credit: Benjamin Yazza, Untitled (detail), New Mexico, 2023, photo, used with permission. Click here to enlarge image. What draws us when we gaze on an image? Here we see movement, flow, and artistry in natural wood.

Story from Our Community:  

I truly believe that art-making and contemplative prayer are siblings. In both practices one can experience “flow”—a connection of being in the now, which is really being deeply connected to God. The real struggle and joy in art making is disconnecting from the small Self. It’s the same struggle I experience in the practice of centering prayer.
—Suzy M.  

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