I’ve been feeling a little burnt out in my faith lately.
In many ways, Lent seemed like an acceptable season to feel a bit spiritually dry, but now Passion Week has arrived and if I’m honest, on the whole, I’m still feeling decidedly un-passionate.
I’ve made some attempts to refresh my soul: reading good books, listening to beautiful music, binge-reading whole books of the bible in one sitting, spending time in quietness. In the midst of looking for an oasis of good words or the perfect soundtrack, I kind of forgot how much I Heart Art.
As anyone who has studied western art history can attest, the development of European art is inextricably meshed with the Christian religion. A common goal for medieval and Renaissance religious artists was finding ways to enable the viewer to fully immerse themselves in the scene being shown. Deep contemplation of bible stories, to the point of envisioning oneself being present within the story, let viewers – even illiterate ones – experience a connection to the painting’s characters, to the narrative, and more broadly, to the church itself.
Sometimes, wealthy patrons of the arts would pay extra to have themselves painted into the scene. For example, the Portinari Altarpiece is a three-panel work that affluent Florentine banker, Tommaso Portinari, commissioned Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes to create. In the finished piece, the left panel shows Tommaso and his sons kneeling, and on the right, his wife Maria and his daughter mirror the pose.
I will resist the temptation to dig too deeply into this, but you will likely be quite unsurprised to hear that not every wealthy patron had a pure, spiritual reason for having himself painted into the scene of an altarpiece.
Whatever the true motivation might have been for these donors, there’s an undeniable appeal to the idea of seeing ourselves in the story. In these commissioned paintings, the artists would intermingle biblical characters and culture with the viewers’ characters and culture. By including elements like clothing reflecting the fashion of the time, codified poses, and physical features that reflected people in their community, artists created a sense of familiarity in their work that would have resonated with contemporary viewers in a powerful way.
Even though our culture now is very different from both Judea 2000 years ago and Italy 550 years ago, the overarching concept still works. There’s a refreshing pop of spiritual energy that comes from a moment of recognition that we are truly a part of God’s story. Me with you. Us with God. Emmanuel.
I mentioned my own uphill-climb against spiritual burnout lately. It’s a tricky bit of business when the thing that you’re spending effort on is Trying Not To Be Worn Out. But, thanks be to God, sometimes that refreshing pop comes from something completely unexpected. I found one in (of all places) my Facebook timeline, when (of all things) an AI-generated image showed up.
As soon as I saw it, I did a little smile-gasp. Someone had asked the AI image generator to create a selfie taken by Jesus during the Last Supper. It was exactly what my heart needed in that moment. The relaxed intimacy, the easy friendship, and sheer relatability of it enabled me to instantly enter the scene. I’ve taken photos much like this at meetups with my own friends.
And yes, it’s AI-generated, so there are weird things. (What the heck kinda fish are they selling at the Jerusalem markets??) But wow, the overall visual idea of it just hit the spot for me.
When I am on social media, I enter into my friends’ lives through the images of their life story. That’s a present-day window for narrative, empathy, and connection that Tommaso Portinari and Hugo van der Goes couldn’t even have dreamed of, but it’s our normal. In this image, I get what the Portinari family got – a visual overlap of Jesus’ experience with mine.
As an artist, it makes me wonder about this as a new branch of devotional art: selfies from bible stories. Imagine the fun you could have running with a project like that! As a spiritual seeker, it makes me grateful for the gift of imagery and imagination as ways to connect more deeply to God and to ourselves.
For those of you who are also feeling burnt and weary, may you find unexpected gifts of refreshment in surprising places. May you be reminded that you’re part of the story; you’re in the picture, and you look great.
Jesus, can you tag me in this one so I can share it?