A musician would look at the organ and pipes, others at stained glass windows, a carpenter might study pews and a seamstress, the altar cloths. We bring our own experiences to the occasion, and with guidance, look at the whole church.
Contemplative Vision: A Guide to Christian Art and Prayer
by Juliet Benner
InterVarsity Press Books (IVP)
P. O. Box 1400
Downers Grove, Ill. 60515-1426.
Pb 182 pages. 2011. ISBN 978-0-8308-3544-7. $17.00.
The idea of contemplative prayer is to quietly explore and pray on a biblical passage or special occasion or life of a person. Author Juliet Benner, a visual artist and international retreat and workshop leader, has taken the word “contemplation” in a different direction by using paintings of famous artists as the inspiration for meaningful prayer. The book is meant as a guide to the artist, work of art and suggested questions for discussion at the end of each of the ten art chapters. Even the cover comes from a famous painting by Johannes Vermeer, “Jesus in the House of Mary and Martha” (chapter three.) We see Mary from a side view, as she sits at the feet of Christ, listening intently, her head resting on her right hand.
The paintings are in the middle of the book, some a full page, others two to a page. Artists selected besides Vermeer are Bruegel the Elder (“Census at Bethlehem” and “Parable of the Blind,”) Moretto da Brescia (“Christ in the Wilderness,”) Jean-Francois Millet (“The Angelus,”) Nicholas Poussin (“The Adoration of the Shepherds,”) Rembrandt (“Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee,”) Caravaggio (“The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” “The Supper at Emmaus” and “The Calling of St. Matthew,”) Ridolfo Ghirlandaio (“Procession to Calvary,”) He Qi (“The Visitation,”) Rubens (“The Descent from the Cross,”) and Luca Giordano (“The Good Samaritan.”)
Benner invites the reader to quietly observe the painting, noting the position of the people, colors used, animals, by-standers and the background. Place yourself there. Where would you be, for example, in the procession to Calvary or when the body of Christ is being taken from the cross? The themes of the paintings come from the Bible and those particular passages are included, plus a short bio of the artist. In this way, discussion is started and you can see how this would open a group to begin a study of famous artist and his work, plus reading the Bible passage and how that could have inspired that work. What Biblical incident would inspire you, for example?
Contemplative Vision is well written with each chapter organized for individual or group study. The art reproductions are colorful and the layout of the book is eye-catching. Benner writes in layman’s terms, bringing out detail that would usually go unnoticed, such as why isn't everyone looking at the central figure in the picture? What else could there be to see? Why did the artist choose to use the clothing of his time rather then of Christ’s time, for example?
This reminds us of entering a church for the first time. A musician would look at the organ and pipes, others at stained glass windows, a carpenter might study pews and a seamstress, the altar cloths. We bring our own experiences to the occasion, and with guidance, look at the whole church. So it is with Contemplative Vision. You see the whole, the parts and then the whole, but now with clarity.