We generally think of prayer as a something we read, say, or listen to. But prayer can also be a visual experience. As the saying goes, “a picture is worth 1,000 words.” Images (and all forms of visual arts) can often evoke rich nuance and meaning that cannot be replicated in words. Similarly, art can bring another dimension to prayer.
There are two main modes from which to approach prayer through art: meditating on art as a starting point for prayer and creating art as an expression of prayer. While they are in some ways opposites, they both use visual means to engage in and nurture prayer, reflection, and meditation.
Leon Augustin Lhermitte, “Friend of the Humble" (Supper at Emaus), (1892)
Art has a long history within the Christian church. Paintings, tapestries, sculptures, friezes, stained glass, and other images and icons were one of the first ways the common people could understand the stories of Christianity. It was not until the 1450s that the printing press began to make the Bible accessible to those outside of the church, and even then the majority of people in Europe and the U.S. were not literate until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and globally not until the mid-to-late twentieth century!). For thousands of years, oral and visual traditions were the primary means through which people were exposed to the Bible and the Christian faith. The result is a wealth of religious artworks in every style and media—a treasury from which we, today, can draw inspiration.
Similar to contemplative prayer, prayer through meditation focused on a word or phrase (check out last week’s post), Visio Divinia uses art as a starting point for meditation. Visio Divinia, which means “divine seeing,” “invites one to encounter the divine through images.” Using a piece of art as a focal point, this prayerful meditation can be practiced by an individual or in a small group. Sometimes scripture is paired with the image as well. (Lectio Divinia refers to the same process but with scripture instead of art).
Visio Divina usually follows five simple steps: (1) preparation and clearing your mind, (2) looking at the image, (3) meditation, (4) contemplation, and (5) prayer. The Upper Room describes Visio Divina in the following steps:
Pick out an image from a website, a photograph, painting, or icon.
Look at the image and let your eyes stay with the very first thing that you see. Keep your attention on that one part of the image that first catches your eye. Try to keep your eyes from wandering to other parts of the picture. Breathe deeply and let yourself gaze at that part of the image for a minute or so.
Now, let your eyes gaze at the whole image. Take your time and look at every part of the photograph. See it all. Reflect on the image for a minute or so.
Consider the following questions:
What emotions does this image evoke in you?
What does the image stir up in you, bring forth in you?
Does this image lead you into an attitude of prayer?
If so, let these prayers take form in you. Write them down if you desire.
Now, offer your prayers to God in a final time of silence.
This painting, “The Annunciation,” by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1898), an Afro-American painter, is about seven feet long and can be found in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. As you reflect on this image, you may ask yourself: “What is Mary seeing?,” “What is Mary hearing?” “How does Mary model prayer?”
Many times, people use religious artwork as a starting point for prayer and meditation, but inspiration can be found in all types of art. Folk artist Heather Sleightholm, for whom art is a central part of her spiritual life, shares a lovely perspective about “When Art Becomes Prayer,” in her blog post on Grow Christians. She writes:
We all have a lens through which we see the world, and for me it has always been art. In this day and age, however, art can be considered frivolous and unimportant. When we began attending an Episcopal church, I was pleasantly surprised to see how important art was as an expression of faith.
… I also learned how icons can help the viewer engage more deeply in prayer, how they foster contemplation on holy events and holy lives, and how their very presence can give a sense of peace and calm. Now I can’t help but weave these holy bits of Christian elements in my own art— icons on walls, candles, little crosses. They are gentle reminders of hope, love and connection.
Art can be both a source of inspiration and a form of expression. Many artists today continue to create art that is deeply connected to their faith and their spirituality. One place to find these artists is at the Episcopal Church and Visual Arts (ECVA) website. ECVA began in an effort to encourage the use of visual arts in spiritual life, and it presents regular exhibits of a variety of artworks. Check out their current exhibit online, entitled “Telling God’s Stories in the 21st Century.”
Creating art—whether it be a professional painting or a casual doodle—can express that which cannot be expressed in words, and it can also be a meditative tool to help focus your mind. (If you sit behind me in church, you may have noticed that I have a tendency to doodle to keep my mind from wandering.) You do not need to be a professional artist to engage in artistic prayer. One of the wonderful things about art is that it is so accessible—regardless of age, ability, or background.
Vinita Hampton Wright, shares her reflection on praying with mandalas on Loyola Press.
I’ve learned that sometimes the best prayers are not built out of words but out of textures or colors or aromas or tones. … When I began coloring mandala patterns several years ago, that practice opened up a sacred space in which I did not have to think or form arguments or explanations. I simply had to be there. I have no training in the visual arts, so I would begin with one color and then go to the next and the next—it was a gradual, open-ended process that gave me the freedom to explore and experience without judging or worrying.
Using coloring, drawing, and doodling as a form of meditation has become more popular in recent years with the trend of adult coloring books. Here are two sites that talk about how to pray through doodles, coloring, and other art forms—for people of all ages:
Art can also be especially effective way to engage children in prayer. Children who may not be able to read or write can share their prayers through colors and pictures. This blog post on Loyola Press shares ten ways you can use art to help children learn about and express their faith.
One year, as a teenager, I worked with the children of my church to visually interpret the creation story to share as part of our Easter Vigil service. While more messy than meditative, it was a wonderful (and fun) way for to engage the children in the story of creation and to reflect on what that story meant to them. Below are pictures of the foot and finger painting we created to represent the creation of light and darkness.
There is no wrong or right way to pray through art—and no wrong way to pray. It is not the method, but the meaning and intent that matter. Prayer is about communicating with God, about opening yourself up to hear God. And there is no limit to the languages God speaks and understands. God hears our prayers whether we say them privately, sing them together in church, paint them in pictures, or doodle them on church bulletins.
This series on ways to pray began with reflections on The Book of Common Prayer; thus perhaps it is appropriate to close the series with a return to that source. Here is a prayer “For Church Musicians and Artists,” which, we have learned, can potentially include us all as we sing or draw or paint our prayers in speaking and listening to God:
O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven:
Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music
to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth;
and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty,
and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Grace and peace,
In case you missed them, here are the previous posts in this series:
Preparing for Lent
Ways to Pray: The Book of Common Prayer
Ways to Pray: Praying Together through the Community of Hope
Ways to Pray: Taizé
Ways to Pray: Meditation and Movement
A member of St. Brendan's since 2014, I enjoy being a part of this welcoming and giving community of faith. However, I am not a theologian, biblical scholar, or official spokesperson for The Episcopal Church. If you read anything on this blog that is inaccurate or contrary to the teachings of The Episcopal Church, please consider it my error and let me know! If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for future blog posts, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.