On Being Alive to the Arts and Religion: Painting

by F. Thomas Trotter

A graduate of Occidental College (AB) and Boston University (STB, Ph.D), Trotter was Dean and Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology. Later he was General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church and President of Alaska Pacific University. His special interests are in religion and the arts and religion in higher education.

This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.


This essay on art from a religious perspective deals with painting. After a brief account of the history of the church’s ambivalent understanding of art, Trotter proposes a scheme for identifying three types of "religious" art, going beyond subject matter to the effect different paintings have on us. Trotter demonstrates both an appreciation for art in general as well as theological insight on how we can be deeply enriched by our experience of fine art.

The themes of religion have provided the content of painting in the West. If you have visited the great museums of Europe or of North America, you have been impressed with this fact. In gallery after gallery, the great themes of religion are the subject matter of the paintings. The Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, and even the Hermitage in Leningrad, display countless paintings of the Annunciation or the Crucifixion or the Resurrection.

This persistence of religious themes may be understood in several ways. In great periods of painting, such as the Renaissance in Europe, the wealthy who could afford to hire artists often subsidized major religious works as appropriate to the scale of their own palaces and as gifts to religious institutions. It is also true that in most of the Christian centuries of the West, painting formed the basis of Christian education. The art of the cathedrals in Europe had as one of its functions the telling of the Christian story in visual ways. Therefore, painting became at once the vehicle for the communication of the gospel to illiterates among the faithful and the expression of the faithfulness of people of immense power and station.

The persistence of religious themes in painting has continued to the present day. In some contemporary painters, these profoundly religious themes may now be expressed in ironic and convoluted ways. Take, for example, the work of the contemporary English painter, Francis Bacon. Bacon reproduced recognizable religious paintings of earlier masters including Velazquez and El Greco and then, with great ferocity, canceled out the authority of the earlier painting with striking symbols of his rage.

The church has been described as the "Mother of the Arts." The artists in several periods of western history did find the church to be a patron. Michelangelo was supported by popes and other princes of the church in the production of his greatest paintings. By the nineteenth century, however, patronized religious painting had become essentially trivialized, as John W. Dixon, Jr., indicates in his book, Nature and Grace in Art (University of North Carolina Press, 1964). The Reformation and Counter-Reformation period saw a decline in the role of painting in the church. Protestant theology came to be defined in terms of confessions, and Roman Catholic theology, reacting as the "Counter-Reformation," came to define itself also in words in the form of defensive statements, such as the conciliar documents of Trent and subsequent councils. The artist, therefore, no longer was permitted to contribute to religious imagination by the creative work of painting and found himself limited to illustrating the "complete" statement of the religious traditions contained in confessions and in creeds. In this sterile atmosphere, only two supremely great artists emerged: Rembrandt van Rijn, a Dutch Protestant, and El Greco, a Catholic Spaniard. By the nineteenth century, religious art had become, by and large, official art and had been reduced to the level of mere illustration.

God is not left without witnesses, however, and the urge to create religious statements and the evidence that the power of the gospel still gripped persons outside of systems led to the fact that a great body of religious art was produced in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries outside of official religious circles. Examples of this are to be found in the works of an outrageous character named Paul Gauguin. One of the most powerful paintings of all time, as far as religious themes are concerned, is his famous painting of "Jacob Wrestling With the Angel." The scene is in a Breton field, and costumed Breton maidens in their characteristic headdress surround the field in which the angel wrestles with Jacob as cows nearby graze in bucolic indifference. Gauguin painted himself in the righthand corner of this painting looking slyly at himself, the artist. What are we to make of this? In the vivid brightness of a Breton summer day, Gauguin is saying that the decisive moment of faith happens wherever we live and work in our time and not in some distant time. The Angel of the Lord wrestling with each of us Jacobs is not an abstract idea but a neighborhood event.

The painter is an artist who attempts to translate to canvas (or in some other medium) something of the power of his perception of the world. The painting may not have specifically religious subject matter but may be expressive and in that expression reveal something of the grandeur and misery of the human spirit. Paul Tillich, the famous theologian, used to say that expressionism was the highest form of religious art. That is to say, expressionism had the power to communicate forcefully the images and the feeling of the artist; therefore, the great German expressionists, such as Emil Nolde, whose "Head of a Prophet" is one of the most powerful statements of the haunting and mysterious sense for Christ of modern art, evoke in us a response that is not the response of immediate and instant recognition. The painter, such as Nolde, is not after the reproduction of a certain tradition of physical features or of characteristic expressions of our Lord (such as the highly stylized expression of the Buddha in the East). The expressionist is after that moment of insight that attacks the viewer and forces the viewer to come to terms with the artist_s vision and the power of that vision.

Tillich reminded us that paintings are not simply photographs or photographic reproductions of events—reproductions that exhaust themselves in their presentation. Tillich suggested to us that when the artist, thinking deeply about his own experience, translates that experience onto canvas, his experience is mediated to us and affects us in ways no one can either imagine or fully understand. The story is told that someone seeing the famous French painter, Auguste Renoir, painting in a field, approached the painter and making small talk, asked, "With what do you mix your paints?" And the artist turned and said, "With brains, madame." The artist who paints religious themes in ways that are religiously powerful might be saying to an auditor, "I mix my paints with faith."

One of the interesting things to do the next time you visit a great gallery is to ask yourself as you move from painting to painting, "What is religious about this painting?" I think you are likely to find three types of religious paintings. The first will be the painting that is specifically religious in its subject matter. It may be a painting on a biblical theme. It may be a painting that is easily identifiable by the subject matter, by the theme itself, as clearly "religious." The question one has to ask on contemplating a painting of that specifically religious subject matter is this: "In looking at that painting and thinking deeply about it, is there something happening to me that makes me a different person for having participated in that art experience?" Thinking deeply about Rembrandt van Rijn_s etching, "The Return of the Prodigal Son," one sees specifically religious subject matter, an identifiable theme, and a story that is well known. But what is different in this experience? With enormous economy of line and with great care for the power of the human form, Rembrandt tells the story of the Prodigal in ways that we have never heard it or seen it before. The entire force of the story is made visual by the contemplation of the hands of the father on the shoulders of the son and the feet of the son as he kneels before his father. The economy of line and the economy of the parable itself are fully described in the form of hands and feet in the act of forgiveness and supplication.

A second type of religious painting would be a painting of non-religious subject matter, but a painting that moves the viewer deeply to contemplate the human situation for one_s own need of help from beyond human resources. An example of this type of painting might be one of the famous clowns of Georges Rouault, the recent contemporary French painter. Rouault saw in the clown the expression of the essential loneliness of the human spirit. Painted smiles and gay exterior costumes hide the poor Pierrot, the sad clown, the unhappy ego, that otherwise is attired in gaiety. This is a painting of non-religious subject matter, but the intention of the artist is to draw us out of ourselves, to require us by contemplating the painting to ask a religious question, "Who am I?"

A third type of painting that you will encounter in a museum is a painting that is devoid of all subject matter as we normally understand it. This is a so-called "abstract" or non-representational painting from the schools of modern painting that thrived at the beginning of this century and into the present time. These paintings are enormously decorative, are often large (especially those from the so-called New York School), and frequently represent dissonant and jarring geometric and optical patterns—patterns that startle the viewer and force either contemplation or rejection. In a very profound sense, these paintings break us open to the religious questions of our time. Is the artist helping us to understand the ways in which our society has, in fact, lost the personal dimension? Are we, as suggested by the paintings of Jackson Pollock, simply random events in a world of random and meaningless events? Sometimes these paintings express the discontinuity of modern religious experience, the loneliness in a world that knows no limits and that overwhelms our ability to speak meaningfully of its shapes and forms. The artists_ paintings express that formlessness and shapelessness.

One must not expect the artist always to be "religious." Religious themes may be handled irreligiously, and non-religious themes may e profoundly religious in their intention. What is exciting about religion in art as expressed in painting is the endless evocation of profound human feelings and the interaction of those feelings with great religious symbols and themes.