The Spiritual Meaning of Visual Art
"Please Participate" by Jeppe Hein, 2016, Portland Art Museum
“The world remains a work in progress. To view art is to witness the manifest energy of being alive and being creative.”
Whether at museums, galleries, or on the street; through books; or even on screens—engaging with visual art can be a spiritual experience if we’re willing to open ourselves up to the possibility.
[Read: “The Spirit of Art.”]
“The visual arts make visible ideas/feelings that are often ambiguous and hard to name,” says Stephanie Parrish, director of learning and community partnerships at the Portland Art Museum (PAM). “Visual art provides a connection between our minds/bodies; allows us to be present in the moment; to slow down and pay attention to details but also take in big ideas.”
Seeing the Spiritual
Edie Millar is a docent at the museum and the lead organizer of PAM’s “Slow Looking,” a monthly virtual meditation experience. The idea is that by slowing down and breathing deeply before really looking at a work of art, we can be transported to another place or time. “This can be a spiritual, deeply calming experience,” she notes. “Sharing your feelings about what the art means to you can expand your horizons and open you up to new ideas, which can also be very spiritual.”
When conducting tours or planning programs, National Gallery of Art docent Chuck McCorkle (who also works with the Shalem Institute on their Assisi Pilgrimage and Visio Divina programs) likes to remind people that we are visually centered creatures. “Hopefully, we’ve each developed a rich visual vocabulary. I think that because of our cognitive abilities, we’re looking for patterns. Or we’re looking for things that will cue us into meaning.”
In looking at a work of art, McCorkle recommends asking two questions: “What do your eyes see?” “What does your heart see?” He adds that the latter question may be more difficult as we’re academically trained to be up in our head. Sometimes, it can take a little bit of work to get people settled into something a little bit deeper.
For example, a religious piece of art may read quite literally. But, as McCorkle suggests, “If you can allow yourself to see it in a way that it sinks down into your heart, then there’s at least the potential for it to become a more personal spiritual experience.”
Viewing Art From a Historical-Spiritual Lens
When taking in a work of art, it can be helpful to know some context. When conducting an Assisi pilgrimage, for example, McCorkle reminds participants that most 14th-century pilgrims were not literate but that their visual literacy was so high, they would have been able to read all the religious iconography presented in each scene of the fresco cycle like a big graphic novel. “If you look at religious art as narrative and try to understand what the narrative is, then these works can draw people in quite deeply.”
While a lot has been written about using icons as a spiritual practice, McCorkle likes to open this practice further to include contemporary art, adding that many of the early 20th-century artists wrote extensively about the spiritual. He cites as one example Wassily Kandinsky, whose book Concerning the Spiritual Art bridges more traditional art by placing these largely European works into a modernist perspective.
Like Kandinsky, McCorkle was influenced by the spiritual power of color and color theory. When viewing a Rothko painting, he recalls, “my eyes had been sensitized to the color relationships. Hence, the painting seemed to be breathing with this kind of tension between the outer surface of the big blocks of color, as if a living presence were occupying that space.”
In reflecting on how we can find spirituality in visual art, Pamela Sue Johnson, a mixed-media artist and creative provocateur from Vancouver, Washington, offers this analysis: “The evocative nature of art can slow down our busy minds to a meditative pace. This calm state can become a reflective state. In this way, the art viewer may become illuminated with an inspiring perspective.”
The Meditative Nature of Art Making
In making art, Johnson feels she’s participating in a meditation, or an act of divine creation. “It is an act of faith, every single time, hopeful that the art will make sense and have a story to tell. I sometimes spontaneously cry when I paint, as if the quiet of art-making allowed forgotten sorrows to surface. All of this gives me a deep sense of gratitude. Art-making for me is like praying, except not with words. I pray instead with color.”
In her expansive view, Johnson concludes: “The world remains a work in progress. To view art is to witness the manifest energy of being alive and being creative. Art has the potential to be a catalyst for profound insight.”
Did you know that each print issue of S&H features a visual artist? Discover their work and mediations on their process.