Religious art is a powerful tool in faith. It’s been used over the years as propaganda. It’s been used as a sign of wealth and prosperity. But more importantly than that, art can be a powerful meditative tool. Whenever I get “stuck” in prayer, I think about art. Because I teach art history, and handle paintings on a pretty regular basis, it’s a handy way for me to contemplate the deeper issues of faith and God. The imagery in these works is often intriguing, or striking. Who can look at a Caravaggio painting and not understand immediately the intense drama portrayed? Who can look at a Bernini sculpture and not be moved by the moment of conversion or religious ecstasy? Even if you don’t know a lot about art, these most basic emotions and feelings are clear. Even St Ignatius of Loyola extolled the value of art in spiritual devotions when he describes a Michelangelo painting of the Crucifixion in his Spiritual Exercises.
I’m an art historian. For me, talking about art, its composition, history and importance is part of my livelihood. I teach students about paintings and sculpture, and usually end up giving them a crash course in Christianity (and Catholicism specifically) in the process. In the National Gallery of Edinburgh, on the ground floor just past the Titians, in a small room off to one side, you will find yourself surrounded by a set of seven paintings based on the Sacraments. Poussin has tried to create unified compositions, and include accurate historical details, to give a sense of authenticity. If you look carefully, you may even notice that the floor in the gallery has been laid in such a way as to recreate the floor in several of the paintings, cool, isn’t it? Sit on the bench in the middle and turn your gaze toward Confirmation (or have a look on your computer, if you don’t fancy a trip down the Mound, or live outside the city).
When I look at a scene like this, I try to put myself in the place of figures in it. It’s a way to understand more fully what’s going on, to understand what these people are thinking, what it would have been like to be present, and in that way bring myself closer to God. It may seem a little odd to seek a religious experience in a museum or gallery, but it’s a surprisingly contemplative place, if you give yourself time. Below is what I see, and hear, and think when I see this painting. A lot of it may seem like “back-story” to the subject shown, but by trying to understand why something was painted in a particular way, or why a particular detail has been added helps us understand what’s shown in a much more tangible way. The artist, Nicholas Poussin, was very interested in suggesting that life goes on outside his paintings, and so I think it’s only appropriate we look at them with that in mind. There were moments before the scene shown, and there will be moments after.
Many questions arise pertaining to my own faith as I look at this picture: how do I live my faith? Where do the sacraments fit into that? Do I take risks for my faith? Can I relate to any of the figures shown?
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It’s the early days of Christianity here – the religion is informal, and illegal. If you’re caught practicing it, you’re likely to be crucified, and so everything is done in secret. It’s Rome, early April, and the temperatures during the day are rising fast to approach the scorching summer heat that ricochets off the seven hills, abated only by rainstorms that cleanse the air of oppressive heat and sticky humidity. Night has fallen and a young mother and two children, two little boys, one about 8 years old, the other only 3, have crept out of the house, past the Aurelian Wall and down the Appia Antica, lined with tall pines on either side. She ducks in and out of the trees in the darkness, shushing her children and listening for footfall that may put her in danger. The mother hurries past small rounded tombs dotting the roadside and out of the city, her way illuminated only by the moon. The gravel crunches and shifts under their bare feet, and the dryness of the day is reflected by the taste of dust in the air, and they hurry around the final bend toward the entrance of the catacombs.
A whoosh of cool air greets the small group as they begin to descend the narrow stone steps leading into the earth. The steps are reassuringly solid, worn down and smoothed in the middle by hundreds of thousands of footsteps before them. The air itself, though cooler than outside, is damp, and carries with it the scents of decay, stone and a single burning oil lamp. The woman stops every few steps, measuring her distance, and praying she doesn’t make a wrong turn in the labyrinth of passageways that sprawls out before her. She holds up the hem of her pink tunica to keep it from getting dusty as they continue on, silence enveloping them. At one large crossroads in the necropolis, she smiles and looks up, seeing a painting of a young shepherd on the ceiling above her, and holding up the youngest boy so he can see too: the clear bronzed face and short dark hair, carrying a lamb on his shoulders: a rare image of their Risen Lord. It is a secret among their sect – who outside them would think a shepherd could be God?
Silently they continue, until a low hum of voices greets them. They have arrived on this, the most solemn of nights. An acolyte sprinkles them with water from a hyssop branch as they enter, reminding them all of their baptisms. The crypt is hewn from the rock, and at the back, barely visible in the darkness, a body is laid out for burial. In front of her, the mother sees a glow, small, but burning bright, as a second acolyte lights the paschal candle. It is Easter Eve, and they’re celebrating not only the Risen Christ, but also their faith as they prepare to receive the sacrament of Confirmation. From death comes new life in this place, and the woman smiles inwardly.
Around her are women and men, children and adults, the rich and the poor. All are welcome here, and there is no hierarchy or discrimination. Even a senator, still dressed in his toga and stole kneels before the priest as he receives the gift of the Holy Spirit. He has perhaps taken the greatest risk, a Roman official joining the new religion. The mother kneels down, urging her own sons to follow him, to approach the priest for the sacrament, but they hesitate. “What if I do it wrong?” the eldest whispers, biting his lower lip and looking back at her for reassurance. “Mama, Mama!” cries the younger one, reaching up for her embrace. But still she smiles and urges them on, adjusting her son’s blue robe and pointing at the faithful who approach the priest on their knees. Here, faith increases with age: the eldest among them hurry forward, accepting the sacrament with open arms and a readied heart. The youngest still take some instruction, some gentle explanation, and with their basic understanding, move forward and let God in. This city of the dead is not a place of death this night, but one of rebirth and renewal of faith. Their journey as Christians is laid bare before them: reminded of their baptism, receiving the gifts of the Spirit, and preparing for the eventuality of death.
Another woman looks on prayerfully, head bowed before the candle and watching the priest intently. Perhaps she is reminded of the wondrous stories of miracles she’s heard from the priest, his acolytes or her fellow Christians. She recalls one in particular, when the Sabbath was over, the Mary’s went to the tomb and were greeted by an angel who said unto them: “Don’t be alarmed... You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen!” And in her heart, she is comforted by the gifts of faith and eternal life, through Christ the Lord.
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As an aside, the painting described of Christ as the Good Shepherd is real, and in the Catacombs of Callistus, on the Appia Antica outside Rome. We don’t know exactly where Poussin intended this scene to be placed, but the catacombs seem like a good bet (if you can ignore the inlaid marble floor).