The Search for the Sacred in Modern Art

Vasily Kandinsky said, “Art has much in common with religion”, expressing the search by artists for the sacred in the modern secular world. In the early nineteenth century artists turned almost completely away from traditional religious subjects and took their themes from everyday life and from the natural world.  But spiritual longings still shine through their paintings.

"Monk by the Sea" by Friedrich

“Monk by the Sea” by Friedrich

Paintings with a mystical theme have always attracted me.  It was exciting to find in a used book shop a monograph, “Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition” (Harper and Row, 1975) by the art historian, Robert Rosenblum, in which he connected many of the 19th and 20th century artists I had grown to love but had never thought of them as part of the same tradition – the Northern European Romantic tradition.   His argument is that similar spiritual themes connect artists like Caspar David Friedrich, William Blake, Samuel Palmer, Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, Philip Otto Runge, J. M. W. Turner, Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Emil Nolde, Franz Marc, Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, leading eventually to abstract expressionism, born in New York after WWII (Barnet Newman, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and others).

"Green on Blue" by Rothko

“Green on Blue” by Rothko

Some of the shared themes amongst these artists are: the human being in solitude before a vast universe; landscapes and seascapes infused with mystery and light; scenes in nature as symbolic of spiritual struggles; children as fountains of energy and new life; trees as expressions of the soul; wild animals as a bridge to God’s original creation; the ecstatic energy of a star-filled sky; a cross set in the mountains or in an abstract painting; the miraculous vitality of sunflowers; the awe-inspiring and terrifying power of nature’s forces; the sun as image of divine light.  (I am struck by how many of these themes echo Genesis Chapter 1).  Abstract Expressionist paintings by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnet Newman continue in this tradition of landscape painting reduced to the elemental forces of nature.  Abstract Expressionism was a search for spiritual wholeness in the aftermath of the apocalypse of WWII.  Gazing into a Rothko painting is a numinous experience, just as looking into the dancing lines of a Pollock can be pure joy.

Friedrich said, “the artist should close his outer eye in order to see his painting with his inner, spiritual eye.”  Rosenblum compares two paintings that stand at either end of this long Romantic visionary tradition: Monk by the Sea by Friedrich  (1809) and Green on Blue by Rothko (1956) (see above).  The illustrations here cannot do the paintings justice but do show similarities which are striking.  Both artists express their search for God through metaphors drawn from the natural world and the world of color. Their kinship is the human desire to belong in the face of the vastness and silence of the universe.  Both paintings bring the seeker to kneel before this vast silence and to set aside ego so that a greater reality might be known.  Rothko said that his paintings were “objects of contemplation” – they certainly open for me  a window to the divine (please see my blog Gateways).

I am grateful to Robert Rosenblum for helping me be aware what it is that draws me in these paintings: the mystical spirit who “like the wind blows where it will” (John 3:8).

About John Fisk

I am a retired pastor, who served churches in New England for 33 years. I emigrated to the USA from England in 1974 and completed two graduate degrees in theology and pastoral practice at Andover-NewtonTheological School. In retirement I am focused on the teaching of Christian meditation, providing spiritual guidance, leading retreats and occasional preaching. I am particularly interested in contemplation, the mystical path and social justice.
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5 Responses to The Search for the Sacred in Modern Art

  1. frank mello says:

    John, most insightful and inspiring. You obviously have a “good eye”.
    Thank you for your sharing. Always look forward to reading “The Still Point”.

  2. Frank Mello says:

    “Numinous” references the spiritual aspect, divinity in a work. John, your breadth and depth of the artistic is enthralling to read and appreciate. Thank you, my dear friend, for sharing it with us. Within the finite simplicity there abides eternal divinity. Peace. Hope and Kindness – Frank

    • John Fisk says:

      The sun has a glorious way of setting many evenings as I walk past the High School and your house on my two mile walk. It is definitely the kind of scene that would have appealed to many of these artists. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Vern Wright says:

    You are a very good writer John.
    I too am a Kandinsky fan. He was quite cerebral and was not afraid to touch upon the spiritual. Rene Magrite with his pure Surrealism was also fascinating in his drive to get people to question the parameters of assumption.
    Thank you for Monk by the Sea! I had never seen it. Beautiful!

    • John Fisk says:

      Thanks, Vern. Monks show up occasionally in these early Romantic paintings. In my experience they are the ones who have held the keys to the experience of God in prayer. Blessings on your ministry.

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