Throughout the history of humanity, it seems, people’s sense of God has flowed into their works of arts, and their works of arts have led them to a sense of God.
-- Some of the oldest cave paintings, at places like Altamira and Chauvet, which our ancestors drew from 15,000 to 30,000 years ago, appear to express religious commitments connected to animism, shamanism, ancestor veneration, and ritual observance.
-- “Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him with the ten-stringed lyre,” says the Psalmist.
-- Ancient Greek theatre evolved from religious ritual drama, according to a widely accepted theory.
-- In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates, who is elsewhere usually portrayed as the very figure of cool rational intellect and moderation in all things, breaks forth into praise of divine madness. He’s not speaking about a pathological, human madness (which maybe it resembles), but an inspiration sent from the gods that opens our hearts to beauty, gives us song, sets loose our gifts of poetry, and moves us to fall in love.
A Canadian-mellow form of divine madness swept Toronto a year ago. I’m thinking of the extraordinary and captivating “Mystical Landscapes” exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario that ran between October 2016 and February 2017. [Pictured above: Van Gogh’s “Starry Night over the Rhône at Arles” at the Art Gallery of Ontario last year, as Alan Hayes talks to a group about the exhibition.] A quarter of a million visitors to the AGO opened their spirits to thirty-seven European and North American artists who had produced visual artwork between 1880 and 1930. We let these artists function, in effect, as our spiritual directors, drawing our attention to ways in which the world around us is transparent to something transcendent. As we were drawn into these paintings and drawings and prints, we celebrated what the review of the exhibition in the Globe and Mail called “a feast for the soul.”
-- The sun, in a painting by Edvard Munch, looks like a brilliantly radiant Catholic monstrance.
-- The reason Van Gogh painted the starry night over the Rhône at Arles, he said, was because he felt a tremendous religious need.
-- A brilliant student of mine who suffers from depression was overcome by a wonderful spiritual and mental refreshment by a set of mystical lithographs by Charles Dulac.
-- In Emily Carr’s affecting “Indian Church,” you see a whitewashed windowless church surrounded by deep forest and wild dark green undergrowth on Nootka Island, and you realize that the life-giving force in this painting—the real Indian church—is to be found in the forest, not the building.
The lead curator for the exhibition, Dr. Katharine Lochnan, was initially inspired to design this exhibition when she took a course in spiritual direction at Regis College taught by Dr. Maureen McDonnell. Katharine had been a perfectly secular-minded art historian before she visited the Burren in Ireland in 2005. At a bronze-age site in this windswept limestone wilderness she suddenly began to feel a powerful mystical presence. You can hear Katharine tell this story on CBC radio’s “Tapestry,” (click on “listen”).
As she developed the “Mystical Landscapes” exhibition, Katharine recruited half a dozen TST faculty members, and one or two atheists for balance, to meet regularly, pore over works of art, discuss criteria to identify when a landscape qualifies as “mystical”, and reach a decision as to which paintings invited a real spiritual engagement. Often the artist’s own description of his or her purpose was a key.
Katharine has now retired from the AGO and has become an instructor at Regis College at TST. She joins a group of about a dozen other TST faculty members who teach courses in a variety of subjects relating to theology and the arts, such as eastern iconography, the theology of aesthetics, spirituality and literature, sacred music, religious themes in movies, and the gothic. Sometimes people study how worldly beauty connects us to realities beyond. Sometimes people study how the worship of God can be elevated by stained glass, music, statuary, dance, painting, architecture, and the other arts. Sometimes people find that a knowledge of Scriptural symbols, themes, and stories help them appreciate what’s going on in works of western, and increasingly non-western, art.
We’ve realized that we have the resources at TST, and around us at the University of Toronto and in the city of Toronto, to develop a program stream at TST in theology, spirituality, and the arts. The Association of Theological Schools has awarded us a sizable grant to move ahead with this. The Provost’s office at the University of Toronto has given us a green light to design a proposal. We’ve met with a number of prospective community partners who will be able to provide experiential learning placements for our students. A proposal is beginning to crystallize, and we’re hoping that we’ll be able to have approvals in place by April or May of this year.
~ Alan L. Hayes