A Brief History of Spiritual Art

March 04, 2008

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What is Spiritual Art?

Bows by Linda McCray“Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colors, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look and listen.” Pope John Paul II, Letter to Artists (1999).

The Spirit has motivated art-making over time in many cultures. Spiritual art offers a transient experience of intensity that reflects the realm of larger truths. It bypasses the cognitive state and directly touches the hearts of the believers.

19th Century Sacred Art

Since the Protestant Reformation, there has been a split in the way Catholics in the south and the Protestants in the north have expressed their faith through art. The Catholics translated their faith by painting modern images of holy personages and divinity. In the 19th century, some Northern painters, such as Joseph Mallord William Turner and Caspar David Friedrich, chose landscapes to offer viewers the experience of God-given mysteries outside of religious orthodoxy. These Northern Romantic painters responded to the religious crisis of their day, the increasing secularization of modern life, by attempting to create their own religious systems which they hoped might usher in the dawn of a more pious and spiritual era. Their ideas influenced many modern artists.

Turner infused landscape paintings with the sense of divinity. His work is filled with the Spirit and proclaims, “There is a God.” In contrast, I view Caspar David Friedrich’s work as asking, “Is there a God?” Monk by the Sea by Friedrich depicts a great void that seeks to lead the viewer to spirituality beyond. Many have been moved by his recommendation that the artist paint with their spirit, not their bodily eye. He spoke about how artists should close their eyes in order to see their paintings first with inner, spiritual eyes. Friedrich searched for new symbols to elicit the transcendental. He used a ship as a secular transition of sacred imagery to symbolize the passage from death into life. This passage is one of Christianity’s most fundamental beliefs and, by going beyond the confines of traditional Christian iconography, Friedrich touched a broader audience. His paintings, therefore, possess both religious and secular dimensions.  Robert Rosenblum comments that “Friedrich’s search for new symbols to elicit transcendental experience was so intense that it converted almost all earlier categories of secular painting into a new kind of religious painting.” Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko (Icon Editions), 2nd. ed. (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988), 171.

20th Century Art

Dust to Dust by Linda McCrayThe void has rich symbolism. For example, it is similar to the Buddhist concept of Sunyata, emptiness, and the Christian concept of kenosis, emptiness preceding grace. Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko painted modern translations of Friedrich’s sense of divinity in boundless voids. Roger Lipsky discusses Rothko’s cloud in his book, The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art. The God of Israel never appeared directly to people but rather appeared as a burning fire or veiled by a cloud.

Many artists have been moved by the Spirit and expressed it in a less direct way. For example, Vincent Van Gogh used sunflowers as a symbol of sun, which, in turn, is a symbol of the sacred. The painting of Starry Night depicts the night sky, a passionate metaphor of the mysteries of the universe. He also created numerous depictions of The Sower, which is a traditional parable found in Matthew 13. Van Gogh began his career as a lay preacher and rechanneled his evangelical fervor into his art.

Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi created a number of sculptures on the theme of ascension. Brancusi said, “I am always working on it. I have not yet found it. It is not a bird, it is the meaning of flight. Bird in Space, It struggles…toward heaven.” Roger Lipsey, The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1988), 234. Brancusi described his calling, “What I am doing was given to me to do. I came to this world with a mission.” Ibid., 246.

Contemporary Spiritual Art

Light From Light by Linda McCrayThe statement of the U.S. Catholic Bishops on contemporary spiritual art is  also instructive:  “Throughout the history of the Church, a dynamic tension has existed between the continuity of traditional artist expression and the need to articulate the faith in ways proper to each age to diverse cultures. In every age the Church has attempted to engage the best contemporary artist and architects to design places of worship that have sheltered the assembly and disclosed the presence of the living God. In the past, dialogue between the Church and the artist has yielded a marriage of faith and art, producing sublime places of prayer, buildings of awe-inspiring, transcendent beauty, and humble places of worship that, in their simplicity, inspire a sense of the sacred.”  Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture and Worship (2000), 49.


Spiritual art is connected to the long tradition of artists who have turned to a world we cannot see except through faith. Contemporary spiritual art translates theology and universal spirituality into a visual language that goes beyond belief and invites believers into a deeper relationship with God.

Linda McCray is an abstract spiritual painter living in Clancy, Montana. A graduate of The University of Montana, Missoula with a Master of Fine Arts: Painting and Drawing degree. She has taught art at Carroll College (Diocese of Helena), The University of Montana-Missoula and currently teaches art at The University of Montana-Helena College of Technology.


Be Not Afraid of Abstract Spiritual Art
Passing on the Faith through Contemporary Visual Language
Where have liturgical paintings gone?  (Part I and Part II)

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