Be Not Afraid of Abstract Spiritual Art
October 20, 2007
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“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 or listen.” (Pope John Paul II, Letter of His Holiness to Artists, 1999. [Español. Français.])
There is a need in every age to communicate and express the sacred in a relevant, contemporary visual language. Contemporary music can be deeply moving in our worship. Why aren’t the visual arts contributing a stronger voice in the chorus of praise?
Expressing the Sacred in New Ways
God is mystery. The experience of mystery through total liturgy requires an environment which invites worship beyond the rational, through all of our senses. Artists convey inner meaning through abstract elements. For example, feeling, mood, and certainly the meaning of the Gospel can be conveyed through the relationship of colors, rough textures, and bold brush strokes. Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian painter who wrote the book entitled Concerning the Spiritual in Art, concluded that the effects of art are not dependent on subject matter alone.
Historical masterpieces were painted by artists who created in a way that was modern to them. For example, Renaissance painters clothed sacred personages in contemporary clothing, which did not compromise the power of their work. To create truly authentic original art, artists must make art of their own time. Freed from the past need to illustrate the Word for an illiterate audience, artists today can strengthen and clarify the message through new ways. Abstract spiritual art is a form of contemporary art that immediately reaches the heart and draws believers more fully into communion with God.
Reaching the Sacred through Abstract Visual Language
Abstraction has been with us through the ages. The flying buttresses of medieval cathedrals call our eyes and hearts to God. Through abstract elements, we are reminded of God, and a human response is initiated. The idea of God is conveyed through the abstract elements of form, mass, space and light.
We have all seen art in museums and galleries that has somehow turned us away. While it may be difficult to understand exactly why at times, it is actually the message that we are turning from, not the way it is said. Today we are accustomed to reading art in a different way than in the past. Art that communicates in our language has greater potential to move us towards the transcendental.
Abstract art has the ability to evoke contemplation and personal acts of devotion while providing an aura to deepen our liturgy. It provides the faithful an immediate impact which reaches the heart. Abstraction distills the message to its pure essence and draws us closer to the universal divine mystery.
Embracing Our Art
“Contemporary art is our own, the work of artists of our time and place, and belongs in our celebrations as surely as we do. If liturgy were to incorporate only the acceptable art of the past, conversion, commitment and tradition would have ceased to live.” (Washington, DC: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (1978) 9.)
There is a time and place for all religious and spiritual art. Certainly the art in a gothic cathedral should be different than that in a contemporary church. Antiquated religious art belongs in traditional cathedrals. A contemporary church calls for contemporary art. If this article was written in Ye Olde English, it would not be as easy for you to read and understand. The same is true for art. To read the mystical language of icons you must know its symbolism. In different ways, icons and abstract art both serve as windows to heaven. Abstract art goes beyond iconic illustration to express spiritual truth.
There are a number of ways to translate transcendent reality into art. To capture feelings of grace, light, and God, I use a number of techniques , including the old masters’ use of glazes to capture luminosity, as well as contemporary mixed media techniques of incorporating found objects rich with symbolism, such as sand from Jerusalem. I bring spiritual art up-to-date by using abstract visual language to enlighten today’s believers. I create fresh ways to communicate knowledge of the truth.
As John F. O'Grady wrote, “People live and die with images and by images. In the efforts to communicate faith, believers must constantly try to find new images that can convey something of that faith. When St. Patrick stumbled upon the shamrock as the image of Trinity, he was being faithful to the human need to express concretely an abstract notion.” ("The Present State of Christology," in Contemporary Catholic Theology: A Reader, Michael A Hayes & Liam Gearon, eds. (1999) 10).
Linda K. McCray is a painter who lives in Clancy, Montana and is founder of Montana Designs Unlimited, which specializes in commercial and fine art.
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