Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew” exemplifies this, as Benner notes: “The dramatic use of light and dark – known as chiaroscuro – was more than just an artistic technique for Caravaggio. He used it to convey spiritual truths that speak of interior spiritual darkness and inner light.”
Benner argues convincingly that countless Christian-inspired pieces of art offer the same guidance on the truths of the spiritual life that books by St. John of the Cross, Fr. Thomas Merton or Pope John Paul II might. She invites us to enter into the painting and hear the appeal from the Savior, such as in “The Calling of St. Matthew”: “That hand seemed to be pointing at me and inviting me to turn and follow Jesus.”
Many Western artists, Benner reminds us, brought biblical personalities to life. Rembrandt’s “Messiah in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” depicts the Lord’s physical and psychological nearness to humans, as he is asleep in the boat, surrounded by hardworking fishermen. These paintings show the true miracle of the Incarnation, as God the Son can be given the same human features that we all have.
Benner notes the tougher side of such closeness, pointing out that Rembrandt in this same painting shows Jesus’ indifference, sleeping even as his followers are fearing for their lives. This artwork captures something of the feeling of the abandonment of God felt by those fishermen and felt by us all at times. The author rightly points out repeatedly that the faith journeys that these artists portrayed are our own faith journeys today.
Readers of “Contemplative Vision” get the sense that Western Christian art often focuses on a “kairos” moment, a time of dramatic change of heart or increased self-awareness, when a motion of invitation or a look from Jesus digs deeply into someone’s heart. Profound conversion happens, as seen with paintings of Jesus and the crowd during the passion or at Cavalry. The look on a disciple’s face in a painting might jar a modern, half-asleep Christian, Benner notes: “Their ideas about him needed to be replaced with a new way of seeing. Their eyes required a radical transformation in order to recognize him.”
In other words, the contemplative life that Benner hopes paintings by Caravaggio, Rembrandt and other masters of art can heighten, involves a new way of seeing the world, a spiritual insight into the true nature of things. Benner argues convincingly that we grow as Christians when we see the world, and those around us, with the eyes of God.
“Contemplative Vision” brings to readers’ attention the all-too-often ignored spiritual and theological achievements of many Western painters, who through art attained the same level of doctrinal awareness and insight as some of the greatest theologians of the church. Considering the rich tradition of philosophy in the church, a wider discussion of the Platonic, neo-Platonic or Cartesian aspects of some of these works would have rounded out the discussion and made it less centered on the feelings conveyed by the various pieces.
Nonetheless, in our image-saturated digitalized world, Christian art needs to regain its evangelizing and educative role, and Benner shows the way.