The woman was talking to her children, pre-teens who looked bored and resentful. Big deal—the Sistine Chapel. It’s hot. It’s crowded. “Listen to me!” she said sternly. “All this art is because people couldn’t read. Church windows and paintings tell Bible stories.” She paused for a moment then pronounced, “This art is educational.”
That word—educational—the kiss of death. They pulled out their phones.
If education is the only reason for church art, then why do we need it now? Almost all of us can read scripture for ourselves. I think this mom was only half-right. There is a deeper reason for art in churches: Art invites us to reflect, to feel and to act.
On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is Michaelangelo’s Creation of Adam. There is God and Adam reaching for one another. Is God giving Adam the spark of life? Some say God was giving Adam intellect. So much has been written and said about what is happening there. I don’t think about either of these explanations. I wonder about the space between those two fingers. To me that space is all about our desire to connect, to touch, to bond.
His painting invites us to consider our own lack of connection with God, or with others—even with ourselves. Why doesn’t Adam sit up and reach forward? He’s barely making an effort. What’s his problem?! And yet there is God clearly reaching for Adam. Sometimes it is just like that in all our lives. God and others reach out to us and we either reach back feebly or turn away completely. We don’t connect. Why is that? Art invites us to reflect.
These are not just Christian stories, they are everybody’s stories. Look at the Pieta: Mary is holding her dead, crucified son. That is the specific Christian story and yet how universal. Not only do parents all over the world mourn the death of their children, but sorrow, anguish and grief are in everyone’s story. Art invites us to feel.
Of course we can stand around and argue about the Pieta: Christ’s body is too small. Mary looks too young. Where are the signs of the crucifixion? But then we miss the opportunity to consider our own sorrow or to consider the grief of another. And maybe thinking about the pain of another will prompt us to reach out to someone who is suffering. “Love one another as I loved you.” Art invites us to act.
What about the stained glass window in our chapel entry? What story is it trying to tell us? Is it a biblical story? We could say the mountain is Mt. Horeb or Mt. Sinai. The fish are from the “Fish and Loaves” story or it’s the story of the disciples catching so many fish that their nets broke. The river must be the river Jordan, or maybe the Tigris or the Euphrates! The dove is the Holy Spirit and that’s that!
Or is it?
What if we see that the mountain is Mt. Rainier? And those fish are our own Pacific Northwest salmon swimming up the Duwamish, the Quinalt, the Chehalis or the Stillaguamish. The Holy Spirit is soaring over us and our land. God is right here in everyone and everything everywhere. This window reminds us of that. And it reminds us that we need to see the Divine in one another—especially those of us who are swimming upstream.
One final thought: Art also invites us to enjoy, to sit back and bask in the beauty of it. So may we all find art in every one of our days. And may we all put down our phones.