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Many believe artists reflect what’s in human soul - Do artists experience the hand of God in their work?

By Susan Gately | Catholic News Service
Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mystics, popes and artists have said that true art is always sacred.

French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil said that works of art can be viewed as “a sort of incarnation.” In “Gravity and Grace,” Weil wrote, “There is a kind of incarnation of God in the world, of which beauty is the sign. Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is possible.”

For Chiara Lubich — founder of Focolare, a Catholic lay movement — the sign of “true” art is its ability to live on after the artist dies because those works “possess something eternal.”

What is it like for an artist or sculptor to craft a piece of religious art and do they experience the hand of God in their work?

Brid Ni Rinn is an Irish sculptor whose parents were involved in the arts: her mother wrote books on the saints and her farmer father wrote about country life. It is not surprising she has artistic talent. Her father contemplated being an artist but instead fostered his daughter’s gift, sending her across the fields on horseback at a young age for art classes.

Her faith was always important and as she moved from painting to sculpting, she naturally moved to the theme of the sacred. Every year since 1963 she has been commissioned to sculpt religious icons or statues for churches in Ireland.

“Your whole talent is a gift and you don’t have control over it,” she said. “Sometimes things don’t work out for me, but I do think I get great help sometimes, where maybe a face will come out just gorgeous.”

She is matter-of-fact about her work, seeing it as what she is trained for. As she sculpts, she asks, “Have I got that right? Have I cut in too deep? Are the two sides of the face too different? Will I be able to fix it?” The prayers she utters are to get it “right.”

She sees the value of sacred art: “Religious art is faith in visible form. I know people who have been converted because of religious art. I think it is the best art there is. Look at Michelangelo or Donatello — it’s sublime.”

Working with the medium of paint, which is perhaps more forgiving than stone, is another renowned artist, John Dunne. Sitting with him in his small studio in Dublin, surrounded by his works of art, I was fascinated by the sheer diversity and imagination of his pieces.

He has entire collections based around Scriptures -- nine paintings on the Song of Songs, eight on Blessed John Henry Newman’s poem “The Dream of Gerontius” and Edward Elgar’s musical rendering of it.

Choosing this subject for his work, Dunne underlines a number of articles of Catholic faith, which are often vigorously denied, wrote art historian, Gerard Kavanagh, the “existence of our guardian angels, the power of prayer and particularly the Mass, the final judgment and the reality of hell and of purgatory as a place of expiation for our sins.”

Dunne, too, was always artistic, spending his childhood drawing on “bits of paper.” Traveling to Asia with the Royal Air Force, he discovered Eastern art. On his return to the United Kingdom in middle age, he came to a deeper faith and began to focus on the sacred.

“What art is trying to do,” he said, “is to remind us of ultimate concerns.” He insists that a painting does not have to be religious to be sacred. All true art is sacred, he says.

“Your task as an artist is first of all to reach within yourself and to find something that is more than just on the surface of life. But that’s only half the equation,” he said. “The faith element comes in between two people — between the viewer and the artist. A good piece of art will move someone.”

Dunne describes what it is like for him to paint. “During good painting, I’m listening to the work and I’m looking at the work and in a way the work is revealing itself to me. Something starts to reveal itself and I don’t know where I am and I don’t know what I’m thinking but I do know that I’m lost, totally lost. You’re left in a space, it’s not a negative space but you’re left in a silence and that silence is like a meditation.”

Dunne says that “often with the sacred theme, you get very little encouragement from the world so a faith environment is very important.”

Focolare’s Lubich believed that artists reflect the human soul and that is why people are inexorably drawn into an artist’s creations even when they are depicting human suffering, like the iconic Edvard Munch series called “The Scream.”

She wrote that “artists perhaps are the persons who most resemble the saints -- because if the saints perform the miracle of giving God to the world, artists give, in a way, the most beautiful creature of the earth to humankind: they give the human soul.”


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