and to see the arts - works of creative imagination - as a means of stimulating and
shaping our own imagination as a spiritual resource. Not all art is conducive to prayer of
course, and sometimes art can be positively hostile to religious ideas. Though I have to
say I have often found the work of the avowedly atheist to have profound spiritual
depth and meaning. I am interested that the novelist Philip Pullman - who declares
himself to be an atheist - should have such a ‘spiritual’ palette of colours in his writing.
And earlier on we encountered Carol An Duffy’s poem Prayer , which despite the poet’s
declared agnosticism (maybe because of it) was able to offer a very profound insight
into the nature and substance of prayer, encapsulated in the final lines of the poem:
Darkness outside: inside the radio’s prayer.
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.
The words of the poet, and the music of the composer, can make connections with the
life we live and the world around us - often offering us new insights and opening up new
possibilities - as well as revealing to us the often terrible truth about the human
condition and our capacity to be less than human. We shall be hearing this year and in
the years that follow, as we commemorate the Great War, a lot of the poetry of Wilfred
Owen and other war poets. Their truthful paring away at the levels of self-delusion and
deceit and vain-glory show us as we are. They reveal our inhumanity - not just that of
our forebears a century ago. Such self-scrutiny may not lead us directly to prayer, but our
spiritual growth depends on our growth in self-awareness, however painful that process
may be. There is much in our religious practices that encourages us to be less than
truthful about ourselves and the way the world is, but a Christian spirituality worthy of
the name will encourage us in a searching self-scrutiny - knowing that who we are,
whatever we have done or failed to do, wherever we go, we are loved by God who
accepts us, forgives us and so heals us. That is something I will return to in the next
In reflecting on prayer and the arts I have been struck time and again by the material
quality, the sheer physicality of the arts. The use of the senses - sight and hearing, not to
mention touch and smell - convey to us the material quality of ourselves, other people
and the world around us. Of course, precisely because of the ‘sensuality’ - the ‘touchyfeely’
quality of the material world, religion has had a very ambivalent attitude to art as it
has to ‘flesh’. Art is seductive (as flesh can be) and we can so easily be led into idolatry
of various kinds, worshipping what is created rather than the creator. Art - works of
creative imagination - so easily glorifies matter and in particular the carnal and the
fleshly. And the fleshly - so the argument runs - is an abomination; leading us into sin
and sex. For, of course, according to a well-rehearsed theological mantra, it was through
sex that sin entered the world and continues in the world. Sex (not money) is the source
of all evil. See how easily the biblical prohibitions against usury for example are
abandoned in the Christian repertoire of dos and don’ts, compared to the continuing
strictures about human sexuality which appear to preoccupy church leaders still today!
Ute Ranke-Heinemann ( Roman Catholic theologian) in her book Eunuchs for Heaven
wrote about St Augustine of Hippo that ‘he was the greatest of all the Fathers of the
Church and was the man responsible for welding Christianity and hostility to sexual
pleasure into a systematic whole’. This is not the time or the place for an assessment of
Christian sexual ethics or the debased theology of human relationships that followed
from the strictures of St Augustine. But it was because of such strictures about the
flesh that at different times in Christian history (of both east and west) the arts have
been suspect, because they glorify the physical, they seduce the eye or the ear or the
imagination. They substitute idols for the worship of the true God. Hence St Augustine
writes in The Confessions:
When I find the singing in church more moving than the truth it conveys I confess that this is a grievous
sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer
And it is not only Christianity that shares this hostility or at best ambiguity towards
artistic creation. We find it also in Judaism and Islam as well.
Thankfully St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas were not the last word on the matter of
religion and the arts, and many have turned to art as inspiration and revelation,
deepening their sense of wonder and their understanding of God, humanity and the
world around them. Many find an art gallery or a concert hall places of disclosure and
contemplation, where the aesthetic moment of gazing at a picture or hearing a piece of
music, not only moves and enthrals but brings them to a place of prayer, of renewed
understanding, to a sense of God.
Our attention has recently been drawn to the paintings of the great nineteenth century
English artist JMW Turner, by the film Mr Turner made of his life. Turner was a
contemporary of that other great English landscape painter John Constable. Though
born within a year of each other they couldn’t have been more different. As the
theologian Tim Gorringe writes in his book Educating Desire
‘where Constable was uxorious, Turner never married; Constable had to wait thirty years
for membership of the Royal Academy and Turner was admitted at twenty two.
Constable was born a gentleman, Turner was the son of a barber. Constable left us vivid
and tender correspondence, Turner preferred to keep his counsel….. Turner is not
known to have been overtly religious …. but theologically we can see that he was an
eschatalogical painter. He is the painter of the Book of Revelation. he always paints into
the sun, not with his back to it. He paints the world irradiated with glory, and this vision
grew stronger with every year of his life. His epigraph is from Ezekiel
And there the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east… and the earth shone with his glory
In his painting of the Chain Pier at Brighton ‘his theme is more light than it is the pier
which threatens to evaporate’.
If a sense of God’s glory is the theme of Turner’s experience of landscape and seascape,
then Constable was, and sought to be, the painter of creation. Although Constable
painted very few conventionally religious pictures he was a deeply religious painter. In
his Landscape Scenery Constable wrote:
who would not willingly forego the vainer pleasures of society and seek his reward in the delights
resulting from the love and study of nature…. so that in whatever spot he may be placed, he shall be
impressed with the beauty and majesty of Nature… and thus be led to adore the hand that has, with
such lavish beneficence, scattered the principles of enjoyment and happiness through every department of
As Tim Gorringe comments ‘This was no isolated pious sentiment, for in the last of his
lectures on landscape painting in 1835 Constable wrote:
The landscape painter has to walk in the field with a humble mind. No arrogant man was ever
permitted to see Nature in all her beauty. If I may be allowed to use a very solemn quotation, I would
say emphatically to the student: ‘Remember now thy Creator, in the days of thy youth’.
He is the painter of creation and if we needed an epigraph for his work it would be
‘And God saw all that he had made: and behold it was very good’.
In his 1827 painting of the Chain Pier at Brighton we see his delight in creation
His back is to the sun, as usual, as when one takes a photograph, allowing the greatest
depth for light and shade. Chiarascuro was his passion from first to last. His cloudscapes
are justly celebrated. They are not just imaginative background material but profoundly
accurate...In this picture we see a sou’wester blowing up from the channel, the clouds
massing and a stiff breeze keeling the little fishing boats off-shore. In half an hour it will
be pouring with rain’ (T Gorringe p?)
Art is a school of attention, as is prayer, for as the twentieth century spiritual writer
Simone Weil puts it ‘prayer consists in attention’. All great art helps us to see, attend to,
sense the depth, mystery and glory of God’s creation, and this is especially true of the
great landscape painters of the beginning of the nineteenth century.
When John Drury wrote about Christian pictures and their meanings in his Painting the
Word, he took a picture by Velasquez which, unlike other works by that painter such as
the Immaculate Conception or St John on Patmos, does not have an obvious Christian
or biblical context. Drury selected Velasquez’ The Water Seller of Seville. Anyone can
look at this painting, religious believer or not, and find it compelling and moving - as
well as being in awe of its technical perfection and artistic beauty.
John Drury continues:
How we should look at this picture should be governed by and continuous with how the
people in it are behaving. as Bishop Joseph Hall remarked ‘God loveth adverbs - how
‘Christianity is a way of handling the ordinary and secular in the spirit of its archdoctrine
of the incarnation of the Divine, the unreserved presence of God in material
flesh, which has the effect of gathering people together in a communion which is ritually
presented in the sacrament and realised in practical ethics. Charity makes society. That is
how we have understood Christianity so far, and it still applies as we look at the people
here in this painting. They are sharing water and both the giving and receiving are in a
mode of silent reverence, both for the water and for one another. … By making his
subject the exchange of water Velasquez attained the ultimate ascetic refinement of the
tradition of alimentary painting (ie painting feasts and banquets) which began in such
gluttenous profusion: here is the purest and commonest human nourishment. Here too
is a humanism whose nobility springs from the Christian conviction…. that poverty and
fulfilment are allied in the realm of charity’ (J Drury p 176)
There is here no speech or text to accompany the painting - and none is required. But as
John Drury suggests, this painting and others we may consider may well spark off
scriptural situations or sayings which resonate with what Velasquez here represents.
Maybe those who first saw this masterpiece would have made such connections. They
may well have remembered:
For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because you belong to Christ...shall
not lose his reward (Mark 9,41)
Jesus answered and said to her ‘ If thou knowest the gift of God and who it is that saith to thee “Give
me to drink” , thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water (John 4,10)
And let him that is athirst come. And whoever will, let him take the water of life freely
As John Drury comments, ‘Like Christianity itself in the face of the secular world, these
words do not explain Velasquez’s picture of silent and secular communion, but they may
indicate the inward values of love and acre which are forever contained here in the
bodies of people and vessels and their unity (J Drury p 180)
It may be that painters, like other creative artists, go ‘a good way further than
theologians down the ethical road of incarnation, with the silent renunciations, the
obedient humility and love for the world of mortal appearances’ as they make ‘the
mystery of things visible’.
Something of that idea of making the ‘mystery of things visible’ (or making the invisible
visible as Peter Brook describes the purpose of theatre in his book The Empty Space) is
the angle I want to pursue to support the idea that the creative arts need not be a
distraction from the spiritual quest or an idolatrous substitute, but, on the contrary, a
way of apprehending the sense of God which is conveyed in the material and the
physical and the sensual. Paintings, however seemingly secular, have the capacity to make
the mystery of things visible and require us to become pupils in the school of
attentiveness. What C S lewis in his Experiment in Criticism has implications for our
appreciation of art but also for our entry into prayer.
Real appreciation (of art) demands that we must not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and
make them its vehicles. We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions,
interests and associations. We must make room for Botticelli’s Mars and venus, or
Cimabue’s Crucifixion by emptying out our own. After the negative effort, the positive. We must use our
eyes. We must look and go on looking till we have seen exactly what is there - we sit down before the
picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any
work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look, listen, receive. Get yourself out of the way.
That is a salutary caution both for art critics and for preachers (like myself) who run the
risk of being too knowing about works of art and use them for their own limited
purposes. The point that C S Lewis is making is that we must pay attention : wait in
attentive silence for the work of art or the piece of music to work on us and within us.
we need to be able to receive. Despite the saying which St Paul claims came from Jesus
himself that it it is better to give than to receive, I often wonder if (following the Lord’s
own example) it isn’t better to receive than to give - or at least better to learn how to
receive, because until we have received we are not in a position to give.
This chapter is entitled From Kitchen Girl to Walking Madonna, because two images in
particular have caught my imagination and helped me both to pray and to understand
what prayer is: one is Vermeer’s masterpiece The Kitchen Girl or The Milk Maid which
hangs in the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam.
Johannes Vermeer painted this picture in 1660. It is a study in stillness. A maidservant
pours milk entirely absorbed in her work. Except for the stream of milk which flows
everything else is still. Vermeer takes this simple, everyday activity and makes it the
subject of an impressive painting. For me it is an ikon of contemplation - because of the
stillness, and tranquility and harmony both in the colour combinations, the falling of the
light, and the composition of the whole. But most of all the attentiveness of the milk
maid as she concentrates on her work. Like the ikons of an Orthodox monastery we are
drawn into another space which invites us to be still as the mystery of things is made
visible. But unlike an Orthodox ikon we contemplate this mystery within the ordinary
and the commonplace - not in a shrine but in a kitchen. As George Herbert memorably
Teach me my God and King
In all things thee to see
And what I do in anything
To do it as for thee.
Herbert went on to talk in this poem (The Elixir) about the servant making drudgery
divine and though Herbert died twenty seven years before this painting was made, it was
this scene and the spiritual poise of the servant he no doubt had in mind.
At the other end of the scale is another woman : a life size bronze statue in The Close at
Salisbury. It is called The Walking Madonna by Elizabeth Frink. As I look at this work
and spurred on by C S Lewis ‘surrender’, it works its art in me. It courses through my
imagination, challenges my theological mind set, resets my spiritual compass - and bids
me come with her to make her prayer my own.
As I walk from my house to the cathedral each day I pass a woman of determined
aspect, striding out from the cathedral towards the city. She looks straight ahead with
single-minded purpose. She greets no one on the way. I do not greet her either or smile
at her, but in my heart I acknowledge her and all she stands for as I move into God’s
holy house, where my soul, I pray, may magnify the Lord.
The woman is the Walking Madonna. There she stands in all weathers, sometimes
holding the hand of a Japanese child posing for a picture, sometimes adorned by a
garland, or holding a bunch of wild flowers in her hand, as the wondering, wandering
public find a human shape in all the mass of medieval masonry and glass with whom
they can connect.
And yet for all her humanity the Walking Madonna is a disconcerting figure. Not only
does she speak of singleness of purpose, not only does her gaunt frame speak of spare
idealism, not only does she proclaim an integrity and a truthfulness as all great art must -
but she is walking away. The Walking Madonna walks away from the cathedral that
bears her name and which was built to enshrine the gospel verities her life proclaimed.
She walks away from shrine and altar and liturgies of infinite beauty. She walks away
from the shimmer of silver in candle light and the platitudes of priests and preachers;
away from the green sward of quintessential Englishness and the elitism and privilege
and comfortable living that surround it. She turns her back on the well -polished route
to God, as though determined to seek him out there in the city of noise and clamour,
and in the struggle to survive, where relationships are made and broken, where laughter
and love and human goodness are joyfully celebrated right on the edges of living, in the
pain and squalor and meanness of life. The Walking Madonna walks away from the
shrine as though she is searching still for some outhouse in which to bring forth God’s
Word and some hill outside the city wall where alone God’s great work of redemption
may be achieved.
These few works of art must represent the many paintings and sculpture and ikons that
have over the years most moved me and brought me to a place of prayer, through their
humanity and compassion, their emotional authenticity or their transcendent stillness. I
would like to spend time gazing at the Rublev Ikon often regarded as a vision of the
Trinity, or other ikons that draw us into their stylised contemplative stillness.
Or Jacob Epstein’s magnificent Christ in Majesty at Llandaff cathedral which was
erected when I was a chorister there when the cathedral had been rebuilt and refurbished
after severe war damage. It is a Jewish Christ certainly - but a risen triumphant Christ,
albeit without the wounds of his passion in his feet, hands, head and side. But a Christ
who rises in triumph from the rubble of war - and bears us with him.
Or Titian’s Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Frari Church in Venice or
next door at the magnificent Scuola San Rocco where a whole series of paintings record
the biblical narrative and are crowned by his magisterial Crucifixion, in which the cross
of Christ radiates an illuminated space, while all around there is the constant bustle of
the market place in which rich and poor, young and old, and animals jostle in the
maelstrom of life.
One piece, of all the many works I could have chosen, has been a profound imaginative
resource in my own understanding of prayer. It is the pair of hands which the
nineteenth century French sculptor Auguste Rodin called The Cathedral.
This statue is some two feet high carved in stone; two hands - two right hands - moving
towards each other, creating a cradle of prayer within the intimate interaction of two
people : as though human intimacy were not that far away from the intimacy of prayer.
Two people making space together - not quite touching, but creating between them a
gothic arch. It might indeed be two people coming together in corporate prayer. But
maybe Rodin is suggesting a human hand reaching out to and being met by the hand of
God. Maybe that is why Rodin called this piece The Cathedral, because here is sacred
space where not only human beings meet together but where God and humanity meet.
Rodin’s hands are famous. He had drawers full of terra cotta hands which he would gaze
at as he contemplated the intricacy of the human hand in all its anatomical detail. And
you can see in many of his works that fascination with hands expressing much more
than age or gender, but emotions too - anguish and fear in the Burghers of Calais;
remorse and pleading in the Prodigal Son; youthful virility in the Age of Bronze;
profound attentiveness in the Thinker; or the idea of humanity held by God’s grace in
his Hand of God. But for me the most poignant of all the hundreds of hands Rodin
created is this Cathedral in which the human is enfolded by the divine which comes
close to us in tenderness and love. They are hands which bring me at least to a place of
prayer; a place where the hand outstretched to find its loving companion is where