When we pray, sometimes we get stuck in forms that we learned long ago. We box ourselves in with words rather than open ourselves to silence and imagination. We forget that prayer can happen anywhere, anytime and that God speaks to us in many ways.
One of the ways God often moves us and touches us is through art.
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Once, I mentioned a favorite poet to a friend and she replied, “Oh, I don’t like poetry.” I was shocked. How could someone dismiss an entire genre of literature so casually? Surely, some piece of poetry had once touched her deeply and she’d just forgotten.
Sometimes, when we think of art — visual art, literature, music, dance — we may fear it’s too “highfalutin” for us. But we shouldn’t feel that way. Whether “lowbrow” or “highbrow,” whether hip-hop or classical, whether we’ve taken an art appreciation class or have a favorite poster hanging above our computer, we should trust our instincts if we feel moved toward God through the art we encounter.
Art that touches us opens our imagination to the Lord.
In searching for art that evokes prayer about the Resurrection, I looked through many examples, created in many different eras. One example is the picture included with this piece, “Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection,” by the Russian painter Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov. This artist lived and painted in St. Petersburg in the 19th century.
I am moved by how the painting captures the incredulity of Mary Magdalene. She has fallen to her knees at the realization that this is Jesus. Who wouldn’t?
It’s easy to identify with her shock at seeing someone she loved, someone whose brutal death she had witnessed close up, suddenly appear in renewed and vigorous form. She had seen his lifeless, broken, bleeding body removed from the cross.
She had come to the tomb expecting to anoint this body. Is it any wonder she mistook him, at first, for the gardener?
Another reason I like the painting is because the Scripture in which Mary is the first to meet the resurrected Jesus is a favorite of mine. This Gospel reading is a beautiful affirmation of the respect and love that Jesus showed toward women throughout his life and ministry.
And when Mary recognizes him as he speaks her name, it reminds me of the personal relationship Jesus desires with each of us and how he calls us each by our name.
There are some things I don’t like about the painting, however. So much of the great art of Europe attempts to portray this Middle Eastern Jewish man, Jesus, as a classical European, and I would prefer to see him painted more realistically.
Also, the painting is very dark. In my imagination, the Resurrection event bursts upon us with unimaginable light, and the encounter with Mary Magdalene must have taken place at the brilliant dawn of the first Easter.
I think it’s difficult for an artist to portray Jesus, because each person who loves him sees him in his or her own unique way. But art can still inspire.
“The Calling of St. Matthew,” Caravaggio’s masterpiece, is one of the most inspirational portrayals of Christ I have ever seen, and much of it is done by the juxtaposition of light and the subtle expressions on the faces of all in the room.
For anyone who thinks art can be difficult to understand, remember Sister Wendy Beckett, the Sister of Notre Dame de Namur who explained the great masterpieces to us in her popular BBC series. She was simple, straightforward and made great art accessible.
Perhaps our prayer could be more imaginative and open this Easter if we focused on a piece of art — painting, sculpture, poetry, music — that moves our heart toward God and stay with it in silence.
Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.
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