The Burrell Collection in Glasgow consists of more than 9,000 objects, housed in a purpose-built gallery which is set in beautiful parkland. It is a world-famous collection and draws visitors from every corner of the globe, and not without good reason. The collection was opened to the public in 1983 and last year it re-opened after a multi-million pound refurbishment. Prominent among the items are the numerous religious objects – statues, carvings, various other assorted objects and paintings.
Visiting the collection a few months ago I came across the lady pictured in the photograph above – she was sitting quietly and carefully drawing this picture of a wooden statue depicting a group of nuns. She told me she had visited often and always found herself drawing this one object, over and over. She was fascinated by it, she said.
Art – and especially religious art – can have this effect upon us. A particular piece or item or painting might hold us in it’s thrall, perhaps even for reasons which we cannot quite adequately explain to anyone else. Art can touch something deep and very personal within us.
In true beauty, we begin to experience the desire for God
Pope Francis recognised this reality in the summer, when he met with a group of artists in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. He told them of his hope that their work might “render glory to God who is the Father of all and whom all seek, also through the testimony of works of art”. He went on to talk about the rapport between the Church and world of religious art – “Your art is like a sail swelling with the wind of the Spirit and propelling us forward. The Church’s friendship with the arts is thus something quite natural.” He then offered them a great compliment – “The creativity of the artist can thus be said to share in God’s own passion for creation. You are sharers in God’s dream!”
Perhaps it is something of this ability to capture or reflect our dreams which touches that depth within us.
The Holy Father commented to these artists that true beauty allows us to begin to experience the desire for God. I wondered if this had any resonance for the woman drawing the statue of the nuns that day at the Burrell Collection – had this one piece stirred something deep and intangible within her, something she could not really express in words but which clearly had a very palpable effect on her over and over?
Churches are also works of art in their own right, especially those older and very grand churches whose spires rise up toward Heaven. My own parish Church falls into this category, since it is around one hundred and forty years old. The sheer beauty of the structure itself tells something of its intended purpose – to raise the heart, the mind, the senses and the very soul to God and to the spiritual realm. Now, that is not to say that more modern churches do not also achieve this – indeed, just the other day I wrote about a far more modern Church which has such a pull – and a deep pull – on my own heart. But still, it is hard to deny the overt beauty and inherent spirituality of those older churches.
Our parish has two churches and the second one if far more modern that it’s sister. Indeed, this weekend it will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary with a special Mass celebrated by the Bishop. As part of the celebration, a new icon Crucifix has been ‘written’, and this contains images of various Scottish Saints and Blesseds. I saw photographs of it this morning and it is very beautiful – and I am sure it will be loved by many and that for some, it will touch that deep ‘something’ within them.
A popular programme on television here at the moment is all about particular items and the need to have them repaired or fixed in some way; often old and usually having been passed down through the years, what is clear is that physical items exert a very real effect upon us; so much more so, then, with art – where this is the intended effect – and especially when it comes to religious art. Such things can be conduits of grace at times – think of the Crucifix of San Damiano and St Francis of Assisi. This, too, of the marble statue carved by Joseph Fabisch, which sits in the nice of the grotto at Lourdes, and which touches the hearts of many people, day after day, whose eyes rest upon it and because of which it finds a little corner of their hearts in which to reside long after they have left that grotto.
For me, there are perhaps three such items in my possession. There is my little wooden statue of Our Lady of Fatima, which is so very dear to me; and then there is the very old bronze Crucifix I have, more than a hundred years old, and which never fails to move my heart every time I see it and pray before it; and the little prayer card in my book which was the first image of the Blessed Virgin (and of Her Immaculate Heart) which moved me in a way which – even now – I cannot quite explain nor even express.
Thinking of all these things, I am thankful – religious art has moved me deeply at times, touched me intimately very often, and occasionally had a very profound effect upon me. Perhaps the Holy Father is right – in the beauty of religious art, ‘we begin to experience the desire for God’.