Lectio Divina - Visio Divina

March 07, 2007

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Painting of Our Lady of Ethiopia    The ancient Christian practice of Lectio Divina consists of the meditative reading of the Bible which leads to prayer and reflection on the meaning of the Holy Scriptures, with the intent to change one’s own life in favor of Scripture values. This practice was very popular in monastic and clerical communities. The Rule of Saint Benedict e.g. prescribes this practice as essential to the spiritual life of the monks.

Given that most Christians were illiterate until fairly recently, this spiritual exercise was not accessible to the majority of the people. They too, however, were able to meditate on the Christian narrative, handed to them, not in word, but rather in image. The practice of meditating on visual images has recently been identified as Visio Divina or Divine Seeing. This form of meditation relies on the visual arts as a source of divine revelation which the viewer approaches in a meditative way in order to glean inspiration and insight.

Statue of Our Lady of Lavang Lectio Divina differs from Visio Divina in that the object of meditation of the former i.e. the Bible is considered to be divinely inspired and thus communicates divine truth and will directly. This is somewhat different when it comes to art. Sacred art today is commonly understood as a human interpretation of the divine truth, revealed in sacred scripture but enlightened by two millennia of human experience. In a sense, sacred art then is not a ‘primary source’ but rather a ‘secondary source’ for the knowledge of God’s truth. In this way, sacred art can be compared to the homily or sermon which is a textual interpretation of the Bible, with the intent to make the readings more accessible to 21st century Christians.

However, in some instances, sacred art is considered directly inspired by God. To Orthodox Christians, e.g. when iconographers follow the ancient prescriptions of fasting and praying and when they use the ancient prototypes then their “writing” of icons is considered directly inspired by God in a similar way as the writers of the Bible were divinely inspired. Because of that Icons are treated with as much respect as the Holy Bible.

Batik of Our Lady of Africa The Church in the West does not have the same explicit understanding of direct divine inspiration when it comes to the creation of art. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church embraces sacred art as an “echo of the mystery of Creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has wished in some way to associate” artists. (John Paul II, Letter to Artists, 1.)  In other words, even though contemporary Christian art is not understood to be the direct result of Divine inspiration, there is a clear recognition of the fact that sacred artists connect with the creative power of God.

Once created, the artistic renditions of the sacred narrative, be they figurative or abstract start to exist in their own right. Although the artist may have had a very clear understanding of what she wanted to communicate through a particular piece of art, once finished and sometimes even during the creative process, the piece of art starts its own life of meaning-giving dialogue with those who meditate on the art, including the artist.

Bulto of Our Lady of Guadalupe Visio Divina then, is the meditation on a visual interpretation of the Word of God. The art is created out of a meeting between the Word of God and the creativity of a particular artist. Once created the work of art begins its own existence freed from the meaning giving control of the artist. In the encounter between the art and the beholder, new levels of meaning are born. No one comes to art with a clear heart, soul and mind free from the events of the day. All beholders approach the art from their own history, their fears and joys, their sorrows and pain. It is often through the hues of these realities that the art appears before the beholder.

The Catholic Church has produced many talented artists over the past two millennia. Some of these artists have made world history, either by the quality of their work or the notoriety of their lives. On the other hand, many sacred artists are unknown – their identities and sometimes their art having been lost to history. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church is the repository of an immense treasure of sacred art from all places and all times, past, present and future. Indeed, despite some misconceptions, this age is a tremendously fertile age in terms of sacred art in general and Christian art in particular. The Catholic Church continues to be graced with artists who provide food for Visio Divina.

Johan van Parys is the Director of Liturgy and the Sacred Arts at the Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis, MN.


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