“A picture is worth a thousand words” goes the saying. Indeed, images can connect with our emotions, can evoke a response from us, and can help us recognize and remember stories and truths.
It is not surprising, then, that since the days of the early Church, the visual arts have been an essential tool for expressing our faith. Jesus painted images with words in parables and metaphors for his listeners. Christians painted images based on Jesus’ words and deeds. When we pray with visual arts, we find that word and image, revelation and interpretation, combine forces.
Visual arts are always an expression of a given culture. Praying with art from different eras and cultures can offer new appreciation for a story that has become too familiar. It can jar us out of our set patterns of thinking, allowing us to share in the insights that God granted to the artist.
I once had a particularly moving experience of the power of visual arts. Amid the usual hubbub of the international airport, a sign caught my eye: it advertised a temporary exhibition set up in one of the areas connecting the terminals. The Rijksmuseum had brought to the traveling public several paintings of the Old Dutch Masters, among other treasures. As I was standing in front of the paintings, I couldn’t help but be touched by these masterpieces; the artists of old reached out and spoke to me from across the centuries.
I paused before Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, an exquisite study in light and form, depicting a maid pouring milk as the light pours through the kitchen window. I know how painfully slowly Vermeer painted because he had to have every aspect of the picture just right: balance, composition, colors, light. I have a deep appreciation for the painting, partly because I know all of these things about the artist and partly for its sheer beauty, untouched by the passing of centuries.
I picked up a reproduction in the gift shop, and while the attendant wrapped it carefully, I said a prayer of thanks to God for soothing my aching soul with the beauty of the divine gift bestowed on this artist. I made my way to the gate, filled with the peace of God’s presence, and boarded the plane to go to my mother’s funeral.
This is a selection by Agnes M. Kovacs from A Prayer Book for Catholic Women: Traditional and Contemporary Prayers for Every Season of Life (The Word Among Us Press, 2018). Available at wau.org/books