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Art and Prayer: The Beauty of Turning to God (Mount Tabor Books) Hardcover – October 1, 2014
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Timothy Verdon is an art historian and scholar with 50 years of experience in the field but when he talks about prayer in the lavishly illustrated Art and Prayer (Paraclete Press), he writes as one who knows his subject firsthand. I had the opportunity to meet Verdon recently at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York where he has been the curator of an exhibit of sculpture from the Duomo museum in Florence. (To see more images from that show and from the Duomo, check out the slideshow below.)
As Verdon reemphasizes in his book, this art from the Renaissance was created at a time when most viewers were illiterate. They couldn’t read the Bible, could only listen to its stories. They turned to paintings and sculpture to better understand the Word – and we still can.
“Images put before believers can in fact teach them how to turn to God in prayer,” he writes.
The images themselves might look simple but the theological concepts can be profound. For instance, a fourteenth-century painting of Mary praying before the infant Jesus in swaddling clothes reminds us of the basic fact that we can all pray to Jesus. But Verdon goes on to say “that the same woman who prays before her newborn Son in our fourteenth-century painting will in fact later teach Him to walk, talk, and say his prayers: for He is contemporaneously true God and true man, outside but also inside time.”
This notion is fundamental to prayer “because – as all who turn regularly to God know – if on the one hand it is we who seek His help with our needs, on the other it is He who sought us first. Prayer, if properly motivated, is always free, and yet our freedom is itself His gift.”
Most of this art, like the sculptures in the Duomo, were done for churches and these are naturally places for prayer, not just bricks and mortar. He quotes Augustine, saying, Christians “do not constitute a house of God unless they are cemented together by love.”
But just seeing art is the believer’s pilgrimage in our desire to grow closer to God. “The desire to see God is not mere curiosity but a deep impulse of Christian faith. ‘The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory,’ the prologue to the fourth Gospel affirms (John 1:14), and another text attributed to Saint John insists that, in Jesus Christ, “Life was made visible: we saw it and we are giving our testimony, telling you of the eternal life which was with the Father and has been made visible to us” (1 John 1:2). Similarly, speaking of Christ, the Pauline letter to the Colossians states simply: ‘He is the image of the unseen God” (Col. 1:15).
Verdon has lived in Florence, Italy, for most of the last 50 years. For those of &us who can’t drop everything and fly to Florence to hear him and see the works of the Duomo, I hope this slideshow helps. To hear him talk, turn to his book, Art and Prayer. It is a rich, meditative read, as satisfying as prayer, and I believe it will enhance anyone’s prayer life. —Rick Hamlin, Guidepost
They had me at "richly illustrated." Over the years I have become more and more attracted to paintings as keys to helping me connect more honestly and deeply with God.
The book does indeed have many gorgeous pieces of art which are wonderfully explained and made personal by the text of the book. For example, looking at both the inset and whole painting of Piero della Francesca's Baptism of Christ, the author takes us through what the painter hopes to show us, the importance of the original setting for the piece and it's possible impact on the monks who would have seen it daily, and the importance of interior transformation for every one of us. He then uses the painting's landscape to segue into nature, Scripture, and imagination before moving on to the next piece for inspiration. All this is by page 6, by the way.
Needless to say, I am finding this thought provoking, eye opening, and inspirational. This is a gem. —Julie Davis, Happy Catholic
In this beautifully produced and illustrated volume, Timothy Verdon applies his years of familiarity with art and faith to an exploration of the links between the two. In seven short chapters he examines many forms and contexts of prayer: how these prayers are portrayed in art, supported by art, and become an art in themselves. The arts explored are primarily the visual manifestations with which Florence, the city he has called home for several decades, is blessed; painting, mosaic, and architecture figure prominently. Music is not neglected, though the focus is on the lyrics rather than the melodies, the poetic texts that have nourished piety for centuries: Tantum ergo, Exsultet, Stabat Mater, and at the end, Dies irae, a hymn dedicated to the “art of dying well.”
Verdon brings his familiarity with scripture and classical Christian literature to his task, and the dialogue between images and texts forms a major theme of his work, especially in a chapter of lectio divina. But from the preference on, his pen is ready to dip into the patristic fountain, recalling the reflections of Gregory the Great, Augustine, and John Damascene, among dozens of others. The citations are not mere shows of erudition, but are designed to assist in placing the paintings and murals into a context, with Verdon as a docent guiding the viewer to “read” the symbolism and significance in the artworks much as a careful preacher might exegete a biblical text.
The subtitle of the volume captures a recurring theme: how art expresses, invokes, and enables coming face-to-face with the tremendous and awesome mystery of God. For example, the figure of Mary in a Paduan fresco “embodies the primordial impulse of every prayer, which is thirst, yearning, desire intense as that of the bride when ‘the fig tree is forming its first figs and the blossoming vines give out their fragrance’” (p.49). A telling passage describes the death of Charles Borromeo, who, “with eyes of both mind and body fixed” on a painting of Christ in Gethsemane “gave his soul back to God” (p. 220). Here a man prays his last prayer while contemplating the image of Christ himself at prayer. Ultimately, seeing is believing.
Verdon writes from a particular perspective, that of his Roman Catholic background and experience, so in addition to the suggestion that “Protestant Europe” added little to sacred art (p. 66) there are some notable omissions in his survey. Although he cries a number of Eastern theologians, there is no mention of the icon tradition so important to the East, and increasingly in the West. So the chapter on contemplative prayer, which might have benefited from some reference to reverential use of icons, focuses almost entirely on the halo of devotions surrounding the eucharist, and their portrayal in art and lyric. This typifies a different approach between East and West: in the former, the icon is not meant to stir the emotions, but the impulse to a purified prayer, while in the West the artwork facilitates “spectator identification with the personage represented and with the emotional reaction described” and “that faith should be externalized through powerful emotional reactions” (p. 270). The many beautiful illustrations in this volume, together with the elucidation Verdon provides, serve as means to that end, and it would be a valuable addition to any church library or as a text for a course on art and faith. —Tobias Stanialas Haller bsg, American Benedictine Review
As befits a book by the renowned art historian Msgr. Timothy Verdon, the paper used for this volume is smooth and substantial, the typeface pleasant and easy to read, and the page after page of art reproductions stunning in their depth of color and beauty.
Prayer takes place in a religious context, of course, but Verdon widens the concept of prayer on the first page: “People pray … when they look around themselves with attention, open themselves to the beauty of creation and allow themselves to be touched by the suffering of others.”
Since the author is deeply engages with art, he explores how the many manifestations of Christian prayer have been expressed in visual terms. Verdon has lived in the city of art — Florence, Italy — for 50 years and directs the Diocesan Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage, and the Cathedral Foundation Museum.
He is also an ecumenist, directing the Centre for Ecumenism of the Archdiocese of Florence. He recently became the academic director of the Mount Tabor Ecumenical Centre for Art & Spirituality in Barga, Italy, about 68 miles northeast of Florence. The center was founded last year by the Community of Jesus, an ecumenical monastery of women, men, and families living a consecrated life on Cape Cod, Mass. This book is the first to bear the Mount Tabor imprint.
The chapters analyze paintings and sculpture that depict prayer spaces, liturgical prayer, prayerful reading (lectio divina), prayers of pleading, contemplative and prayer at the hour of death.
In engaging, accessible language, Verdon takes the reader through works by Dutch, German and Italian Renaissance masters—Van Eyck, Holbein, da Vinci, Titian, Michelangelo—as well as modern artists.
The first image, however, is that of an anonymous third-century artist, who painted the image of a woman clad in a brown robe, with her arms outstretched and her eyes turned upward, on a catacomb in Rome.
“The woman’s prayer … springs from the ordinary sacrifices and joys of family life, and her solemn, veiled figure … expresses the final state to which these sacrifices and joys have brought her—the painting in fact adorns her tomb,” Verdon writes.
Her position reflects that of Christ crucified. “On the cross where he gave his life,” Verdon says, “Jesus prayed, and it is his prayer that Christians are called to reproduce in their own lives.”
When disciples asked, “Lord, teach us to pray,” Jesus “in fact teaches how to give one’s life,” writes Verdon. “[T]he art that springs from this gift of life and that describes it … thus necessarily celebrates prayer.”
“Art & Prayer” is a journey through a world of visual and spiritual riches that rewards the reader again and again. —Solange De Santis, Epis Journal
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Much of religious art is Catholic, but as a Protestant I have a hard time appreciating Madonnas, or pictures of the clergy. While Verdon comes from a Catholic perspective himself, he really helped me understand what is being communicated by the inclusion of Mary or different saints that I did not know the story of. This is a lesson in understanding art history, not just a religious view. The depth of his discussion made these images relatable even to me as a Protestant. Besides, the art pieces included are not limited to Catholic themes. Some of my favorites that he talks about are The Angelus by Millet and A Vineyard at Merano by Wasmann.
The theme that brings this whole collection together is prayer, as the title suggests. This is lovely. Every chapter looks at a different aspect of how art challenges our imagination to help us grapple with religious truth and turn more intentionally towards God.
Finally, I am very happy with the aesthetic quality of this piece for reference use. All the pages are high-quality, thick, and glossy. Many of the paintings fill up the page, or even two pages.
*Review copy courtesy of Paraclete Press*
Having visited Europe several times, I am so blessed by how reading this book brings me back to the awe and beauty that is found in these treasured museums and galleries where these antiquities are displayed.
DO NOT MISS THIS TREASURE.
I'm not Catholic but I'm learning some about Catholic traditions as I go through this book.