MAY 4, 2019 | Brett McCracken
This is the latest in our series of lists highlighting works of art and culture Christians should know. Previous installments have highlighted poems, works of fiction, silent films, contemporary fiction, and church architecture.
The history of painting is in many ways a theological history. For centuries, artists have depicted, wrestled with, riffed on, and deconstructed religious imagery and themes. The history of painting is thus a treasure trove for theological engagement, overflowing with visual lessons and insights that can complement or complicate one’s faith (or lack thereof).
But where do you start? The sheer volume of theologically charged painting can be overwhelming. Going to just one museum with an eye to engage art theologically can be daunting, let alone approaching two millennia of artistic output.
Perhaps you could start with the paintings featured here. I reached out to a number of Christian artists, art appreciators, art professors, and art curators, and asked them simply to choose one or two paintings of theological interest—perhaps works that moved them personally or have enhanced their own faith journey. Their selections run the gamut both stylistically (from medieval-decorated manuscripts to abstract minimalism) and chronologically (spanning almost 1,000 years of art history), and yet each has something to say to the Christian.
Each title is hyperlinked to an image of the painting, and the contributor is listed below each description.
Psalm 137 from the Saint Alban’s Psalter, artist unknown (ca. 1120–1145)
One of the most important survivors among early English Romanesque decorated manuscripts, the 12th-century Saint Alban’s Psalter has virtually no equal in the lavishness of its decoration, of which this letter “S” is a prime example. Inside the “S,” appearing at the top of Psalm 137, a body of water spills down the page in serpentine fashion. Filled with fish, the river-like shape symbolizes the rivers of Babylon. At the top of the image, one man hangs his harp on a tree; at the bottom, two men engage in discussion, perhaps planning retribution for the sufferings inflicted on them in their exile. As these figures sit on the edge of the river, we may imagine them on the edge of despair. But they do not sit alone—they sit together alongside a river that teems with life. Seeing this image, the monks might have been reminded of the liberating power that comes from singing one’s laments to God and that their own journey was one that intensified their longing for a heavenly home. For us today, a psalm like Psalm 137, beautifully illustrated on this page, helpfully reminds us that faithful worship does not exclude the harsh realities of life. (A longer version of this commentary appears in the Visual Commentary on Scripture.)
— W. David O. Taylor, assistant professor of theology and culture, Fuller Theological Seminary
Annunciation, Fra Angelico (ca. 1432)
The annunciation has been a frequent topic for painters, with artists such as Giotto, Leonardo, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, and Rossetti giving us interpretive windows on the moment when the angel announces what God intends to do through the humble virgin, Mary. If one considers the annunciations painted down through art history, one cannot help but be intrigued by what they reveal about the shifting perspectives about her place in the story of salvation. Fra Angelico painted several versions, but my favorite highlights the humble submission of golden-haloed Mary, whose hands are folded across her chest as she listens intently to the words of the angel, which hang in the air between them as a readable text. The significance of this moment is made clear on the upper left side of the painting, where we see Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise. The promise the angel brings is that the Son of the virgin will remedy what the sin of the first parents has wrought. It’s all staged as a beautiful dramatic tableau, and Mary’s submission seems formal and rather unsurprising.
The Baptism of Christ, Piero della Francesca (ca. 1448–50)
If there is one painting I wish I could take home, it is Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Jesus in the National Gallery in London. In 2000, the gallery created a Life of Christ walk with map and audio guide. I took it five or six times. The Baptism stopped me every time. In the painting the air, even after 500 years, still glistens. John the Baptist pours water over Christ’s head. The Jordan is clear, shimmering like the air. In the background Christ is removing his shirt, a story within a story. Behind him the Jordan flows into a desert landscape. Serene. Three angels bear witness. Tuscan angels. Wings furled. Looks of wonder on their faces. Unlike the Nativity angels singing “Glory!” these angels are solemn. Their presence marks a turning point. Christ isn’t just another Galilean carpenter’s son; he is the Son of God. Piero caught the moment. Nothing would be the same. From here on, Christ is headed to Jerusalem, to Calvary. The course is set. At the time I had just turned 50, a personal turning point. The audio narrator described this juncture, captured in Piero’s timeless calm, as a kind of transubstantiation, reality lifted out of its moment into eternity, the point from which there is no return. Halfway through my life, I, too, would never be the same. Piero had taken me out of time with the strokes of his brush and the evocation of that penetrating Tuscan sun.
— Roberta Green Ahmanson, art collector, writer, and patron
Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald (1516)
A gaunt, torqued figure hangs on a cross in the center of a large, multi-panel altarpiece. Christ’s skin is a sickly green, pricked with thorns and welts. His head lolls to the side, but his arms and fingers are rigid and tensed in pain. Blood drips from a brilliant red gash in his side, pooling on his twisted feet. This viscerally unsettling altarpiece was made for the hospital at the Monastery of Saint Anthony in Isenheim, France, which was known specifically for their care of those suffering from skin diseases. Blistered, pock-marked patients could come to the chapel and see a Christ who, indeed, understood their suffering and bore their weakness on his own body. But several times in the liturgical year, including Easter, the altarpiece would be transformed. The hinged panels would be opened, and patients would be greeted by Christ resurrected, light streaming from the wounds in his hands and feet. Patients could be assured that the Jesus who had empathized with their brokenness was powerful enough to restore their diseased bodies too. Together, the altarpiece’s configurations acknowledge with brutal honesty the ravages of the fall, and the utter glory of the coming consummation.
—Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt, assistant professor of art and art history, Covenant College
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio (ca. 1600)
The Baroque master Caravaggio is known for his gritty realism, which bucked the traditional pieties of religious art. His biblical figures, including Jesus, do not have otherworldly auras or idealized forms; they have weathered faces, lived-in clothes, and dirt under their fingernails. (He used working-class Italians as models.) This physicality has theological import, not least in his painting of Thomas’s encounter with the risen Christ, located in the Sanssouci Picture Gallery in Potsdam, Germany. Caravaggio emphasizes the physical and emotional immediacy of the moment—not only through the dramatic play of light and dark (chiaroscuro, a technique for which he’s particularly celebrated) but also by tightly cropping the composition, zooming us in to where the action is. I love how Jesus pulls back his garment—an unveiling—and gently guides Thomas’s index finger into the open lip of flesh. Rather than reproaching Thomas for his skepticism, he invites him to investigate, an experience that enables Thomas’s confident confession, “My Lord and my God!” Two other apostles look on with intense curiosity, but it is Thomas’s face, with wide eyes and creased brow, that registers surprise and dawning wonder.
— Victoria Emily Jones, blogger, ArtandTheology.org
The Holy Family by Rembrandt van Rijn (1633)
Rembrandt’s 1633 painting of the Holy Family effectively undermines “toxic masculinity,” but without trying to sell you shaving cream in the process. First off, we see a naked breast, but not for male titillation. This breast is sustenance for a hungry, infant God—an antidote to pornography. Second, Joseph, with the tools of his trade hanging neatly, has (in our terms) closed his laptop to be with his family. The paternal tenderness in his face is something far rarer in the history of art than we might expect. But the painting also tells us something about ministry. Because our culture is so confused about gender, we might be tempted to politely ignore passages where Paul uses a maternal metaphor to describe his work (Gal. 4:19). But Rembrandt has managed to convey the mystery of Pauline masculinity with singular brilliance. The empty, womb-like basket is not placed where it is by accident! In this painting, it is not only Mary who is called to bear Christ—but Joseph is called to bear the Christ child in faith as well (Mark 3:35; 1 John 4:12). The great Orthodox mystic Symeon the New Theologian (d. 1022) dared to write that “[e]ach conceives in like manner to [Mary] within himself the God of all, as she bore him in herself.” But the greatest of Protestant painters made precisely the same point here with his brush.
— Matthew J. Milliner, associate professor of art history, Wheaton College
Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt van Rijn (ca. 1663–1665)
Created just a few years before his death in 1669, Rembrandt’s treatment of the titular event renders Christian ideas of grace, mercy, and love with profound solemnity (and in my opinion, given the facts of his tumultuous late years, it also implies a self-portrait of Rembrandt himself as the lost son.) The silent scene evokes awe and demands absolute attention (Luke 15:24). The father and son stand out in light against a dark environment: the ragged torn garments of the son are particularly vivid. In a kneeling position he faces his father, only to reveal his bald head, back and feet (one barefoot) in a gesture of shame and with the appearance of an outcast. The welcoming father (faces us, the audience) clothed in ochre sleeves and a red scarlet cloak, exhibits a breathtaking color harmony and atmosphere. The secondary characters are the brother and three assistants, all looking at the reunion, except one barely noticeable figure in the middle of the composition looking directly at us. Rembrandt’s dramatic interpretation seems to suggest a unique opportunity for us (the audience) to become “the prodigal son” ourselves.
Late Self-Portraits, Rembrandt van Rijn (17th century)
In this series of candid self-portraits, done late in life in the wake of the artist’s catastrophic losses (his wife and son dying, his popularity waning, his income plummeting) Rembrandt investigated the brokenness of the human condition in the most vulnerable and transparent way possible: by revealing himself utterly—without self-glorification or polished public persona. The majority of art historians and critics agree that these paintings are unique in the history of portraiture—for their obvious artistic mastery combined with complete candor and penetrating insight into the realities of aging. The portraits reveal beauty in the least likely place—in weakness and loss. This is a profoundly biblical vision and an embodiment of the Philippians 2 passage known as the Christ hymn. Rembrandt had spent many years as a famous “Dutch Master” and received many private and public commissions—among them profound biblical subject matter demanded by private clients and by churches. But the artist couldn’t help himself: He “spoke” the truth in his art, revealing unflattering aspects of his patrons in their portraits. But he reserved his most penetrating and honest gaze for his own face and form—making landmark images of the human soul in all its melancholy and dignity.
— Bruce Herman, Lothlórien distinguished chair in fine arts, Gordon College
The Sower, Vincent van Gogh (1888)
Vincent van Gogh’s The Sower was intended, in the words of Judy Sund, as “a subtle rebuttal” of The Vision of the Sermon (1888) by his friend Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh borrows Gauguin’s compositional structure, diagonally dividing the image with a curved tree growing from the right—a compositional quotation that frames a significant visual-theological debate. Whereas Gauguin places his biblical subject matter of Jacob wrestling the angel in a visionary “elsewhere” beyond the tree—over against the tangible “here” of the congregants to the left of the tree—van Gogh reverses this, placing his biblical figure of the messianic Sower in the foreground on the left, concretely on our side of the tree. And the sower strides toward us, casting seeds into the field on which we viewers presumably stand. Like Gauguin, van Gogh gives us an image of “wrestling” with God, but here it happens in the immediate foreground rather than the distance, and in the guise of a peasant sower rather than an angel—a sower looking for soil in which his words might flourish. If van Gogh retains an “elsewhere” beyond the tree, the distance seems to be eschatological rather than metaphysical, in which we see the house of the Farmer to whom the harvest finally belongs.
— Jonathan A. Anderson, associate professor of art, Biola University
Mont Sainte-Victoire, Paul Cézanne (1897)
Unlike Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) did not paint series. The exception is the Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he painted some 40 times with oil, and as many again in watercolors. Curiously, he almost never discussed this subject, though it clearly moved him deeply. Occasionally he admitted how hard it was to grasp the theme. There is a historical reference. The Cimbri and the Teutones had attempted an occupation of southern France, but a Roman hero, Marius, defeated them in 1021. This became a “saint” victory, because the Roman presence insured the eventual triumph of Christian civilization. Cézanne was aware of this, and yet it would be a grave mistake to reduce his series to historical events. Gradually, he moved away from depictions of nature to painting reality. His use of colors, his lines, the composition, are all elements of a certain presence. According to art historian Denis Coutagne, we have in this series an expression of hope, an almost sacramental ascension from the earth to the heavens. Though abstract, since there is no photographic element here, it is a theological abstraction, using the genius of his painterly art to draw us from the world below to the world above. “Je vous dois la vérité en peinture,” Cézanne once declared to Emil Bernard (“I owe you the truth in painting”). Did he ever achieve it? Closer than any modern artist, I believe.
— William Edgar, professor of apologetics, Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia)
The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1898)
In the late-19th century, the African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner offered his take on the events of Luke 1:26–38. Drawing on what he’d learned from travels in the Holy Land, he created an entirely convincing and realistic depiction of this moment. Mary is sitting amid crumbled bedclothes, dressed in the clothing of a poor peasant woman. She has no halo, and her surroundings are ordinary and unremarkable. The angel who appears before her is not the traditional winged messenger of religious art, but appears as a bright, golden burst of light, indistinct in form, yet radiating a warm and glowing presence. Mary seems a bit frightened and uncertain, as one might expect, though Tanner has captured the moment when fear begins to give way to contemplation and acceptance. Her head, bowed but tilted upward, indicates her receptivity and openness to God’s call upon her life. The sheer ordinariness of this depiction of the intersection between the divine and the human is a reminder that God’s message is for perfectly ordinary people in perfectly ordinary circumstances.
Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III, Gustav Klimt (ca. 1917–1918)
This is the third in a series of three posthumous portraits of Maria (“Ria”) Munk, a young Austrian woman who committed suicide after her lover, the German poet and writer Hanns Heinz Ewers, called off their engagement. Klimt was commissioned by the family to paint her portrait, but the first two paintings did not meet their approval. While working on this third portrait of Ria, Klimt died, leaving the work unfinished. Typical of Klimt’s style, this painting is colorful, vibrant, and highly decorative; but its unfinished nature reveals the artist’s process and allows us to see his eye at work. We see the painting’s direction in its incompleteness: the preliminary charcoal sketches of the woman’s figure and the flowers, the quick swatches of colors in the background. Even unfinished the painting is beautiful; we can only imagine its glory had Klimt been able to complete it. So it is with our lives and this world we know: We are works in progress, catching glimpses of beauty here and there even as we await completion. There is evidence of the Creator’s hand at work, yet we also wait in the tension of the now and not yet. In this unfinished portrait, we can resonate with the words of 1 Corinthians 13: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
— Eva Ting, director of W83 Ministry Center, Redeemer Presbyterian Church
Christ Crowned with Thorns, Horace Pippin (1938)
I recently encountered the paintings of Horace Pippin at a LACMA exhibition featuring the works of outlier and self-taught American painters. The work of Pippin, an African American painter active in the 1930s–’40s, stood out to me. His paintings often depicted racial injustice and prejudice, as well as biblical scenes and eschatological longing, such as the Holy Mountain series. Pippin had no formal training and his folk-art style has been called primitive, naive, and innocent; but there is a maturity to his work that reflects an intuitive eye. Pippin’s rendering of Christ is especially moving. Presented in muted grays and sepia tones, slightly off center, this is a humble image of Christ at odds with the “regal” implications of its title. Christ dons a crown and a robe, perhaps sitting for a portrait session like the great kings of history often did. Yet his countenance rejects the pomp and circumstance of royal portraiture; his gaze is the opposite of superiority or aloofness. Rather, his presence—especially the eyes—communicates a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3). It’s a look of empathy and solidarity with the marginalized, the scorned, and the demeaned. What do we see in the painting? A Savior who sees us.
— Brett McCracken, senior editor, The Gospel Coalition
Broadway Boogie Woogie, Piet Mondrian (1942–43)
World War II had just begun when Piet Mondrian settled in New York City. Mondrian was a Dutch artist whose ideas on aesthetics and design had a significant influence on architecture, art, typography, and interior design in the 20th century (and to this day). Mondrian believed in the need for abstraction and simplification, and even though his focus was to distill nature to the “essential,” he would always highlight that he was driven by “the spiritual.” One can explain Mondrian’s art (both figuratively and literally) as the intersection between the vertical and the horizontal. In this vibrant piece, Mondrian sees New York City through his aesthetic lenses. We can almost look at the people walking, feel the busyness of the city, hear the traffic and feel the rhythm of jazz. Mondrian neglects reality to focus on the unseen spiritual qualities of our natural world. Although we cannot “see” New York City, we can feel it. Recognizing the unseen realities of existence is a spiritual practice (2 Cor. 4:18, Heb. 11:1–3, Col.1:15) which takes observation, meditation, and imagination.
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, Francis Bacon (1944)
Bacon’s surreal triptych remains one of the most recognizable works of modern art and arguably what he is best known for as a leader of the post-war British period. Three Studiesis the first work to deal directly with the artist’s experience as a civilian volunteer during the bombing of London. Instead of the traditional figures depicted around Christ’s cross, Bacon has chosen instead to paint the Furies from Aeschylus’s Oresteia. As indicated by the surrealist details of the composition, these creatures are half-human and half-monster. Though little in the composition connects with the title, Bacon often references the crucifixion in his titles as a way of underscoring the historic nature of the tragedies he pictured, but without serving a devotional aim. The combination of these features—a Messiah tortured and executed by the state; alongside a cast of betrayers who sacrificed their humanity in the process—serves to heighten the sense of betrayal many in Bacon’s generation must have felt. Neither church nor tradition could prevent the worst atrocities in recorded history. Such despair marks much of modern art, but these works also give us vehicles to lament a past that is not yet in the past.
— Taylor Worley, associate professor of faith and culture, Trinity International University
Starry Night and the Astronauts, Alma Thomas (1972)
In the final decade of her remarkable but still largely unheralded career, D.C. painter Alma Thomas ushered abstract expressionism into the space age. In Starry Night and the Astronauts, painted when Thomas was 80 years old, the muted tranquility of a blue-black sky is interrupted by the reddish specter of a rocket ship. Although the painting invokes Van Gogh’s Starry Night by its title, it’s that other Van Gogh marvel, Wheatfield with Crows, that the picture calls most readily to mind.
In Wheatfield, a painting completed just weeks before the Dutch firebrand committed suicide, a murder of crows—rendered in sloppy black brushstrokes—unsettles an otherwise swirling Van Gogh landscape. A lyricist, if not a revolutionary, on the order of Van Gogh, Thomas developed a late style of syncopated brush strokes that converted canvases into patch-work quilts of pulsating colors. The effect is startling in its buoyancy. Where Van Gogh’s birds cast a chilly shadow, Thomas’s spaceship irradiates an odd and jagged wonder. Starry Night and the Astronauts is what Psalm 8 might look like (“when I look at your heavens . . . what is man that you are mindful of him?”) were the psalmist an abstract painter awaiting the latest dispatch from the moon.
— Drew Bratcher, assistant professor of English, Wheaton College
Last Supper (Dove), Andy Warhol (1986)
Central to Warhol’s work is an extended exploration of the fragility of meaning in the age of mass media. In the last years of his life, Warhol—a lifelong Catholic—turned this exploration toward the fragility of religious meaning, critically reflecting on the problematic visuality of his own faith and its vulnerability to reduction and cliché. In the mid-1980s he made dozens of (often huge) paintings derived from Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (1495–98), endlessly reiterating Leonardo’s imagery, often overlaying it with commercial logos and slogans. In Last Supper (Dove), the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a Dove soap logo, a General Electric symbol irreverently stands in for the “light of the world,” and even the Last Supper appears as a diagrammatic “Leonardo” more than a comment on its biblical source. And the 59¢ label from the Dove packaging seemingly frames the whole concoction as yet another consumer product. To borrow Michael Fried’s phrase (about Warhol’s Marilyns), these Last Suppers are “beautiful, vulgar, heartbreaking icons” of the gospel transposed into the language of commercial advertising and run through the machinery of mass media. It’s a painful diagnosis—one that retains powerful lessons for contemporary Christians—but, as in much of Warhol’s work, it also asks whether shadows of something deeply sacred are decipherable even here: the face of our neighbor in every Marilyn, the Word made flesh in every knock-off Leonardo.
— Jonathan A. Anderson, associate professor of art, Biola University
Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald creates closely observed, life-size portraits of African Americans. In one painting, a woman in a coral sweater and teal, patterned skirt stands against a light green background, gazing contemplatively at the viewer. The woman is dark-skinned, but her flesh is rendered in shades of black and gray, as if lifted from a vintage photograph. The clear, bright colors locate her in our world, but her grayscale skin suggests she also stakes her claim to history. She holds a camera in front of her chest, and one hand twists the lens, as if focusing it. Though visually quiet, this painting does the radical work of restoring black female dignity. The black and white skin may recall pseudo-scientific photographs of bare-chested African women intended to categorize and degrade. But now, the woman is beautifully clothed and self-possessed. Instead of existing as an object, she silently asserts her agency as she points her camera at us. She has the power to look and to create. Though not a Christian herself, Sherald taps into the fundamental truth of the imago Dei, gently reminding us of how our culture has historically dehumanized black women and offering a generative alternative for the present.
— Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt, assistant professor of art and art history, Covenant College
Brett McCracken is a senior editor at The Gospel Coalition and author of Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty, and Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Brett and his wife, Kira, live in Santa Ana, California, with their son Chet. They belong to Southlands Church, where Brett serves as an elder. You can follow him on Twitter.