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5 Paintings That Have Shaped My Understanding of God

Published:
January 3, 2024
December 25, 2023
Read this article to see the beauty in the practice of visio divina to improve your faith life.

There is a spiritual practice called Visio Divina, or “sacred seeing,” that embraces the idea that meditating on art can be a truly transformational experience.

I can personally attest to this. Out of all my spiritual practices, I have found, again and again, that the simple act of pondering art strengthens my connection to God. Though some suggest a more formal prayer process, mine is simple and easy: I keep reproductions of paintings that I love nearby. Over the years, I’ve collected postcards, museum pamphlets, and even xeroxed color copies of meaningful artwork from library books. They are tucked into a wall display near my bedroom closet, hung with pushpins in the hall, and stuck with magnets on the fridge. In my personal rotating gallery, each painting has its own distinct call and sense of comfort.

Here are five paintings that have continually helped me form a bridge to the holy. 

The Good Shepherd (1902-1903) Henry Ossawa Tanner 

I haven’t always held Jesus the Good Shepherd close in my heart, but in the last ten years, this has become central to my faith. Though I was always pulled toward Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want”), it was this painting that allowed a breakthrough in being drawn to the shepherd: the tranquil blue night sky, the peaceful symmetry of the trees overlapping, the surety of the figure striding. What’s struck me about this scene is the sense that, though draped in silhouette and mystery, the world is about to become clear. The face, as it draws closer, will be revealed, and recognizable. The lost will be found as the moon, rising higher, will glow even brighter. The scene embodies so much promise and hope. 

Henry Ossawa Tanner work is worth exploring. He was the first Black American to support himself fully as a painter. The Good Shepherd was a theme he returned to again and again throughout his career; this one is a close-up, others are more of a birds-eye view from above of Jesus searching in a sweeping landscape (I also recommend Tanner’s “Annunciation,” another image I love to ponder).

Virgin and Child with St. Anne (1501-1519) Leonardo da Vinci 

Of all the images of Mary in religious art, this Da Vinci is one of the most ethereal in expressing the tender love of the Blessed Mother. I’m not afraid to admit that my whole life, I’ve longed to be loved like this, to be watched over with this gaze. It’s why I say very freely, Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us. There’s abundance in the brushstrokes here: as Mary sits on her own mother’s lap, St. Anne beholds her daughter with serene joy. It stirs a peaceful feeling in me every time to behold three generations, so close to one another, so full of devotion. My eyes often come to rest in the center of the painting, in the encircling of the child within those protective arms. 

This is a perfect example of a painting giving comfort. To see such love upon a face as it gazes at the Christ child reinforces my own desire to show him love, to find all that tenderness within me, too. The expression on Mary’s face? That love? I want to receive it, but I want to give it, too. 

St. Francis Preaching to the Birds (1295) Giotto 

This is part of a series of frescoes painted on the walls of the world-renowned Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. I’ve been blessed to see it. In the weeks I spent in Assisi, I woke each morning and eagerly walked west over the medieval cobblestones; it was heavenly beginning every day viewing this masterpiece. What I love most about this fresco is the white bird, a perfect dove alongside Francis, gliding closer to the sermon. The pale opened wings contrast with the clarity of Francis’ face, the rays of light radiating from within his halo, and the realistic rendering of his hands. A few other birds are so lightly painted they’re see-through, showing the bottom lines of the mountain ridge behind them. 

This painting evokes the number of conversations I’ve had with people who tell me that nature is their cathedral, and I understand. I’ve found healing in the beauty and wonder of the outdoors. Trees and birds, mountains and clouds, St. Francis honored these more than any other saint. “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” is his cherished, beautiful poem full of love for nature. This image invites us all, again and again, to head outside in our lives, to wander paths, to listen to birds, to watch them. To feel the presence of God. 

Annunciation of Cortona (1434) Fra Angelico

It’s incredible to me that I got to see this one in real life at the Museo Diocesano during Holy Week in Cortona, Italy. I adore the ethereal work and Fra Angelico. Like the Giottos, I went to visit this altarpiece every day, for at least an hour. I stared and stared, riveted. With no bench to sit on, I happily just perched on a cold white marble floor near it, and I felt so full and satisfied. Hands down, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It’s a strange painting because an intensity connects Mary and Gabriel, yet it’s one of soft love. There’s urgency in Gabriel’s gestures, but not panic. Their gold-leaf words, flowing back and forth, speak of a birth that will last for eternity, yet the moment is frozen in time. The Annunciation, in all its sublime beauty, is fully captured here. 

I am grateful I made a pilgrimage to this, and also glad I bought a small poster of it for eight euros in the gift shop. It’s been hanging alongside me for almost ten years and it’s never lost its hold on my heart. Even now, though I don’t understand why, in describing this annunciation, I have tears in my eyes. 

Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee (1633) Rembrandt 

While I love having opportunities to view glorious works of spiritual art up close, I will most likely never see this painting by Rembrandt — nor will anyone! Stolen from the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, its whereabouts are unknown. It boggles the mind that this was cut with a blade from its shattered frame in one of the biggest art heists in history (which also included a Vermeer and a Manet, among others). Where is this masterpiece? The $10,000,000 reward has brought no answers.

Rembrandt’s only seascape, this remains — in reproductions — a dazzling, cinematic interpretation of Matthew 8:24: “Suddenly a great storm arose on the sea, so the boat was covered with waves.” Within this scene, one can practically hear the waves overtaking the boat and the emotional responses of the fishermen. Amusingly, another fact about this painting is that Rembrandt painted himself here: he is the figure clothed in turquoise, cap on, looking out. Though the danger rages, the story is also shifting at this very moment.  Light is breaking through. Christ is poised calmly, softly radiating. 

While I have read the scriptural passage many times, it is the painting that vividly helps me remember that within my own storms — setbacks, disappointments, losses, crises — God is with me. Right there, along for the journey, in the center. For me, this painting serves as a vivid reminder of that truth.

Whether you’re drawn to paintings, sculptures, photography, or another form of art, I encourage you to try the practice of “sacred seeing.” If you’re someone who struggles to focus or feel connected to God during prayer, having a visual to concentrate on may be the key to unlocking a deeper spiritual experience. Visit a museum, check out a book at your local library, or just search online from the comfort of your home — and let the art take it from there.

Creators:
Maureen O'Brien
Published:
January 3, 2024
December 25, 2023
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