Stalking the Spiritual in the Visual Arts

by David Morgan

David Morgan is a Ph.D. student in art history at the University of Chicago.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 6, 1989, p. 1152. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


John Dillenberger’s Visual Arts and Christianity in America is “an unprecedented contribution” to American art history, states David Morgan, but nevertheless he takes exception to much of the book.

Book Review:

The Visual Arts and Christianity in America: From the Colonial Period to the Present. Expanded Edition. By John Dillenberger. Crossroad, 290 pp., $39.50.

Dillenberger argues convincingly that art has been a secondary matter in American culture. One reason is that from the colonial period through the 19th century the Protestant majority in America was "a linguistic, hearing culture." The dominant modes of perceiving and representing the world were auditory and verbal rather than visual. Protestants mistrusted the image and regarded its role in the Roman Catholic liturgy as typical of an alleged Catholic penchant for mystery, sensuousness, feeling, superstition and idolatry.

Despite the fact that Dillenberger laments the Protestant bias, he seems to accept the Protestant claim that images lack clarity (claritas) and engender mystery. Mystery and clarity are not necessarily mutually exclusive, however. And if the auditory were singularly clear and the visual singularly mysterious, then poetry and music would be deprived of mystery. The Protestant insistence on clarity pertains to a preference for discursive or propositional thinking, not auditory-vcrbal expression. And mystery is not simply a function of obscurity. John Flaxman’s engravings from the Iliad are paradigms of Neoclassical clarity, yet are wonderfully evocative. By the same token Impressionist painters sacrificed visual clarity, but hardly for what one could characterize as mystery.

In his 1986 book A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities, though offering a more balanced use of the terms clarity and mystery, Dillenberger argues that a blatant contrast between language and painting followed the rise of Protestant orthodoxy. Not only does he overlook the rich and compelling complexity of the language and literary imagery of post-Reformation Protestant poets and mystics, but he also ignores the widespread practice among partisans of the visual such as Goethe, Conrad Fiedler, Albert Aurier and Wassily Kandinsky of characterizing painting as a "visual language." They did not intend to subordinate painting to a verbal sensibility, but rather to recognize in the painter’s art a power of expression equal to that of spoken language, an expressive potential realized in the idiom of the visual alone. Language as such is not the villain.

Dillenberger continues his examination of the visual arts in America with a useful and wide-ranging survey of the status of the visual arts in Spanish Catholicism in the Southwest, in religious journals and in the views of clergy, important patrons, collectors, galleries and artists themselves. Juggling art history and religion is not an easy task, but Dillenberger usually achieves a satisfying balance. Some exceptions: we are liberally treated to images said to depict civil religion, but we learn very little about the theology of civil religion. On the other hand, we are introduced to the nature and spirit of transcendentalism, but aren’t told much about how the "softening contours and the blurring of details" in landscapes by George Inness reveal "underlying structures that directly mirrored the divine."

Dillenberger implies that Inness was pursuing mystery by blurring and softening. Thus Dillenberger returns us to what may he his leitmotif: discerning what is spiritual in pictorial form and what is not. He develops this motif in regard to sacramentalism and in connection with the success of abstraction on the American scene.

Dillenberger links the evaluation of images in the history of British and American Christianity to views on sacramentality in a way that is most suggestive, but in no way conclusive. He suggests that sacramental theologies are less antagonistic toward the visual than are nonsacramental ones. Perhaps he reasons that the mystery of the sacrament encourages what he considers the mystery of images. Yet his theory fails to account for Luther’s indifference and Calvin’s outright iconoclasm. Still, his idea that visual sensibilities and sacramental theologies are mutually supportive is intriguing.

Many regard this claim as self-evident, as a sort of visual fact rather than the aesthetic disposition or judgment it actually is. What exactly does Dillenberger mean? Dillenberger’s theories on abstraction lack the critical scrutiny he shows elsewhere in his work. He argues, for instance, for a gradual evolution from representational form to complete abstraction. Accordingly, 19th-century painters like Thomas Cole and John Kensett sought to convey spiritual affinities in their work, but were limited to naturalistic technique. By the turn of the century, however, painters had loosened themselves from the tight grip of appearances, but still remained in the orbit of representation, Hence Matisse’s work "never reached the radical focus that in abstract expressionism separated recognizable form and reality." By the 1940s and ‘50s painters cut their bonds to nature altogether and began exploring the spiritual resonance of pure form. So the argument goes.

The problem with such genealogies of artistic ascent is that they turn artists into precursors of unborn generations. Thus Matisse is a precursor of Barnett Newman. Yet the art of Matisse is not an imperfect type foreshadowing the final dispensation of Abstract Expressionism. Matisse did not "reach" Abstract Expressionism for the simple reason that it was not his intention to do so.

Dillenberger seems to assume that representational art is less spiritual than abstract art since it depicts objects and is therefore less mysterious. But is the art of Michelangelo or Rembrandt less spiritual than that of Kandinsky or De Kooning? Dillenberger wants to discern in Abstract Expressionism a union of spirituality and visual sensibility that might produce authentic cultural symbols. But whether or not this union exists, abstraction per se is not the artistic antidote to American Christianity’s suppression of the visual. The Rothko Chapel, for instance, will never offer a suitable environment for Christian worship because it is singularly visual and removed from Christianity’s textual and historical particularities. Furthermore, Christians have always employed abstract forms, but often without the slightest visual sensibility. Abstract forms are especially susceptible to discursivity or denotation, from traditional church "picture language" to the hermeticism deciphered by popular Jungian interpretations of Adolf Gottlieb and Jackson Pollock.

But if the spiritual in art is not primarily a matter of content or representational or nonrepresentational technique, what is it? Dillenberger provides a clue by suggesting that the work of art is a symbol. The term symbol has been criticized in recent years for its link to Romanticism (which understood it as a revelation of the infinite or absolute) But the term is one that Dillenberger, along with his friend and teacher Paul Tillich and others like Ernst Cassirer and Paul Ricoeur, takes quite seriously. Dillenberger claims for art something of the sacrament’s power of presence. By understanding presence as something more than "mere appearances," Dillenberger has come to consider abstraction the pictorial procedure by which artists penetrate beneath the visible surfaces of nature in search of a subject’s "essence" or deeper truth. Thus, "forms of abstraction" become "the way in which the forces and vitalities of nature [are] set before us as positive mysteries, echoing something about nature and about ourselves."

For example, Dillenberger says Pollock has "glimpsed new realities" and Abraham Walkowitz has represented "the essence of motion" in his studies of dancer Isadora Duncan. Similarly, he writes that in her flower paintings O’Keeffe "uncovers the mystery of nature and its curious affinities." Mysteries, vitalities, essence are all notions anchored in the depths of Romantic and Idealist thought. But what exactly is the philosophical -- and theological -- apparatus that pioneers, practitioners and partisans of abstraction employ?

What we do find in abstraction, however, is a novel way of seeing. For Martin Buber and John S. Dunne, spirituality consists not in any phenomenon or object but in the nature of our relations to things and to others and to ourselves. Likewise, art reveals the spiritual in the dynamic relationship between image, referent and viewer. The image rewards the searching gaze with the presentiment of an order or authority of a purity, grandeur, power, knowledge, love, integrity or stature which is other than the viewer. One encounters this otherness as a presence and revelation -- whether of God, the artist, nature, the unconscious or whatever one is inclined to find.

According to this definition, the wo4 of art functions as a symbol when ii offers the viewer a manner of looking ai something which reveals an otherness, What we look at may be a recognizable subject or the nonreferential manipulation of paint over a surface. But we encounter in the symbol a new relationship with what we see. Its power lies in the ability to change how we see and therefore to transform our relation with what we see. The revelatory power of an image consists in its ability to shape vision. To disclose the "essence" of an object, a feeling, even of the very act of painting as in the case of Abstract Expressionist painters, means to envision a characteristic way of seeing. Factual statements about nature reduce art to mere illustration and assimilate it to conceptual habits of thinking -- precisely what Dillenberger rightly criticizes in American Protestantism. Rather, the purpose of "spiritual" art must be to fashion the manner in which we encounter the "other" in acts of vision.

Any presence which the spiritual in art evokes is something which we are unable to see in its entirety, something we are unable to make into an immediate object of our knowledge. In this I believe Dillenberger is right. But such a presence is not necessarily a function of obscurity or clarity. A landscape by Caspar David Friedrich or an interior by Jan Vermeer is considerably clearer than a work by Inness or Rothko, but no less evocative of mystery or presence. Each of these artists offers us a vision that changes how we see by refusing to treat what we see as all that is there. As paradoxical as it may seem, presence in painting is achieved by limiting the visual. To make present is to refuse to represent one’s subject entirely -- whether the artist employs a representational or a nonrepresentational, a clear or an obscuring, technique.

Since the unseen by definition cannot be seen, artists (and evangelists?) present symbols to establish visually a relation between us and the unseen which does not reduce the transcendent to a finite form. The symbol suggests that the spiritual is something considerably more than any single object, yet partially unveiled in our act of seeing. Therefore we describe this presence in terms of transcendence: depth, invisibility, obscurity, inwardness, hiddenness. Luther said that Christ’s body and blood were present "in, with and under" the bread and wine. These terms indicate the elusive, indefinable presence of the spiritual, they don’t merely locate it.

With all this said, Dillenberger’s readiness to take the image so seriously in articulating spirituality is admirable and, one hopes, prophetic. His book is an unprecedented contribution to the field of American art history and should secure an enduring place of importance in the burgeoning scholarship on art and religion.