Arts in Service to Faith

Elsewhere the Owl has offered a squib called “Performing Art” arguing that altarpieces and other objects in church actively participate in worship by depicting the saints and narratives as indeed present with worshipers. Here follow some specific instances.


Basaiti, Agony in the Garden
Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

Basaiti’s Agony in the Garden is a perfect example of an altarpiece that functions as a membrane between the two realms of liturgical space. It has been removed from its proper context, but the marble arch within the painting no doubt replicates the architecture of its surroundings.[1] Jesus kneels at the rock with the disciples are strewn sleeping around him. Patron saints stand on a pavement outside the arch that makes a boundary between them and the narrative scene. The dividing line both separates and joins; we and these patrons together look through it to the praying Christ.

But there is more. The lamp at the apex of the arch is extinguished. Recall that there is only one time in the Christian year when the lamp that guards the sacrament is extinguished: Maundy Thursday through the vigil of Easter. The chancel has been stripped, the altar washed, and the ambry left open and empty. It is as though the place has been robbed. This altarpiece makes that time present whenever a devotee comes to pray before it. The liturgical event, eternally present to faith, and the body of Christ sacrificed on the altar below, are not merely alluded to, but visibly given to us. worship.

Piero della Francesca, Madonna della Misericordia
Pinacoteca Comunale, Sansepolcro

This altarpiece also makes clear the veil which both divides and connects our space with liturgical reality. [2]  Here is John the Baptist standing on a pavement with one foot before and the other behind its edge. The crucified Lord at the peak of the altarpiece, to whom John points with his right hand, is present in the elements on the table before him, which he indicates with his eyes. The panel is permeable in both directions. The figures who kneel and stand under the Virgin’s cloak were probably modeled on contemporary citizens of the town. The consubstantiality of the elements with the Christ is clear, in front behind, and surrounding.

Piero della Francesca, La Maddalena
Cathedral, Arezzo

On the north wall here is Piero’s Maddalena.[3] She is radiant, her golden hair spread on her white cloak, just washed. The light in her face is not that of personal virtue, for she is a notorious and penitent sinner. It is the light of Christ’s righteousness, the sun of a kingdom both foreign and present to us. One can hardly wait for her to speak. When she does, her words will be so unexpected, and yet so clear and self-evidently true, that they will redeem whoever hears them. Before such a picture, one waits for God’s true and lively word, to be spoken in holy freedom.

Piero della Francesca, La Resurrezione
Palazzo Civico, Sansepolcro

Here in secular space, we have Piero’s Resurrection.[4] Although it is not explicitly an altarpiece, it has Christ in the central axis, and the guardian of soldiers arrayed two on each side. The soldiers are not saints, and neither were the councilors assembled in the room, but these figures are arranged as they would be in a sacra conversazione. We are not in church, but we need not doubt the seriousness of the officials’ piety or their awareness of the fact that their roles call for exercising faith. Among the soldiers see attitudes that might come to councilors: awe, prayerful adoration, inward contemplation, fear before a catastrophe. They comprise a catalogue of responses to Christ’s lordship.

Standing ourselves before Piero’s Resurrezione, the effect is awe and shame in view of the Savior’s struggle to overcome the death dealt to him. The Christ is still bleeding. He does not fly out of the sepulchre as in Fra Angelico or Rafael; he climbs heavily. It has been a close fight.

Non-liturgical paintings

Altarpieces may best be appreciated with eyes closed and head bowed, but spiritual experience can also be found in non-liturgical works outdoors, not necessarily deliberately. The things of daily life have their radiance as well.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Adoration of the Magi in a Winter Landscape (1567)
Am Römerholz, Winterthur, Zurich Canton, Switzerland

A traditional element in a Nativity is a piece of ruinous architecture, signifying the death of the old order and the dawn of the new. In this example the largest, darkest object is a ruinous church facade, brooding over a snowy town full of human activity. The Christ child is tended by his mother in a shed in the left foreground. The church has become the great superseded entity. If we are to worship Christ, we must do so out here in the snow, where he comes to find us.[5]


Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) is famous for luminous depiction of fine household accoutrements: carpets, musical instruments, clothes, jewelry. What meaning might we find in these pictures? It is probably a mistake to read them as assertions of Protestant confidence in a crass sense, but it is hard to avoid seeing an attitude of worship veiled in Vermeer’s quotidian themes. The beauty of the girl and her hat is real. The golden light in the picture reminds us of the chapel of St. Catherine in San Clemente, Rome, where the very dust of the air seems to reflect the gold in the walls.


Ben Shahn, Ecce Homo
Cathedral Church of St. Michael, Coventry

In this church, famously bombed in the night of November 14,, 1940, in what would be the south aisle of the ruinous old part, stands a white limestone statue of the bound Christ, by Ben Shahn: Ecce homo. Behold the man Christ, yes, but also: behold, man, yourself, and be instructed. Look around at what you do; see what kind of creature you are. Then again: look, man; see to what lengths your God goes to reach you. Then again: behold, man, yourself as Christ, bound and destined for death; know that his glory shows itself even now.

[1]       Peter Humfrey, The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1993), app. 71, pl. 242, p. 255.

[2]       Maurizio Calvesi, Piero della Francesca (New York, Rizzoli, 1998), 148–51.

[3]       Calvesi, Piero, 160–61.

[4]       Calvesi, Piero, 55, 156–59.

[5]       Roberts-Jones, Philippe and Françoise, Pieter Bruegel, (New York: Harry N. Abrams), 177–78.

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