The use of art as a bridge to Scripture and faith was one of the more fascinating subjects discussed at the October Synod of Bishops on the Bible.
And one of the most interesting talks on that subject came from Natalja Fedorova Borovskaja, an art history professor at the Russian Academy of Fine Arts. She explained to Register correspondent Edward Pentin the connection between Scripture and sacred art, how such art and music can help one’s faith, and how they helped maintain hers during the difficult years under the atheistic Soviet regime.
How is art connected to Scripture?
From my point of view, we cannot know everything about this connection, as it’s the result of mysterious action of God, the mysterious action of the Holy Spirit, speaking from the page of the Holy Scriptures to the painter.
But first of all, the process requires that the painter has to read the text, and that is very interesting because it’s not necessary to be religious or a Christian to read the Bible. Very often for the painter, the process of creating a work of art is not a sacred action because it’s his profession to paint, and he could paint any subject. But during the process of reading Scripture, there is this mysterious phenomenon in which God works through the words.
In his mind, the painter can think about other things — money, his career, his prosperity. But the soul of the painter during the reading of the text cannot be indifferent to the action of God. It’s a mystery, and sometimes, it’s a mystery for the painter personally.
Even though they may not be conscious of the effect of Scripture on their art, there is nevertheless an effect?
Yes. … A sacred work is the result of a dialogue.
For me, it’s very important that at the synod many of the Fathers, in their talks, told us that the main phenomenon of Christianity is that the Christian God is a God who speaks. God speaks, and the person listens to God. The process of the creation of sacred art is the result of this dialogue. God speaks to the soul even though we cannot hear his voice.
You have said that artists have sins and temptations, but also moments of enlightenment, and so can create highly spiritual works. Were you thinking of someone like Caravaggio or Michelangelo?
Yes, everybody is reminded of Caravaggio — Caravaggio and some others. I’d like to add this is not only a phenomenon of art history; it’s also a phenomenon in the history of the Church.
I’d like to recall the famous words of Christ that “the wind blows where it wills.” Christ was speaking there about the Holy Spirit.
The character and nature of the talent of the painter is very sensitive — because of his talent, he is more sensitive or emotional than someone else. Maybe that’s why his mistakes are darker and stronger than someone else’s.
The painter is a weak person, but as we know very well from the Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, God chooses the weakest.
His works show that no matter how sinful he may be God can work through him?
Yes, and for me, one thought is very important: The biography of a talented painter often has aspects of the passion of Christ.
Christ may die in the soul of a painter, and a painter may kill Christ, but there is a space within the painter’s talent, a space for resurrection.
So these paintings can offer us a great deal of hope?
Yes, I think the history of art, the history of human painters, is a history of human hope in God’s mercy.
What is the best way of approaching sacred art to be able to see God’s love and mercy within these painters?
There are several points to be made. As I mentioned, the first way is to realize that in art history there is a space for dialogue.
God speaks through the artistic beauty of the painter or sculptor. God calls man through the artwork and we know about many fruits of this dialogue, not only those that were produced through some unknown private experience.
This is the great example St. Teresa of Avila gave. She was converted again, after 10 years of living in a Carmelite convent, after seeing a new statue, “Flagellation of Christ” [I’ve seen this statue; it’s extremely emotional and naturalistic].
At that moment for St. Teresa, it became the voice of God who called her to renew her life — not only her life, but the life of the whole community of Carmelites. So this is a big gift from God.
Another way is to look at the talent of a painter. God sent such people to the world. He gives them that talent, which is not for their own prosperity. The talent of the painter belongs to the whole world because it’s like God’s microphone.
I am sure the third way, for me especially, is to recognize the profession of the art historian as a great gift from God. The great Austrian scientist, Hans Sedlmayr, believed that the main task of art history was to open, through scientific analysis, the presence of God’s spirit in the work of art.
The main problem in our modern society is that, in their contact with art, many people have lost a vision of real beauty. Our vision is dirty, and everybody needs a purification in the process of aesthetics.
I’d also like to make another point regarding the conception of modern art history. Msgr. Timothy Verdon was present at the synod and is an art history professor based in Florence. He spoke very interestingly about the contemplation of works of art, viewing them as a mystery which prepares you for seeing God in heaven.
In the Kingdom of heaven, we won’t need words in our contact with God because we shall see him. Here on earth, the Lord gives us the opportunity to be prepared through the contemplation of artistic beauty. I agree with this point of view.
Could you tell us how your appreciation of art history grew out of your experience of living under an atheist state?
My personal interest in art is the result of the hard work of my mother. My mother accompanied me to all the museums and brought me up in the artistic life of Moscow, and so on.
Through this upbringing, I learned about art and, as well as visual art, I spent a lot of time learning about music because my first profession is in music.
When we studied a course in music, we studied “St. Matthew’s Passion” by J. Sebastian Bach. I already knew about the episode of Peter betraying. I listened to the aria “Erbarme dich” many times, almost everyday, because of the beauty of the music.
But I was deeply impressed [by] how sinful man can cry because of love. “What does it mean to love Jesus?” I thought.
Jesus at that time was, for me, a literary character, and I couldn’t understand how it was possible to love Jesus. I knew about the existence of the faith, I knew people believed, but I guessed they had a different faith. I felt they feared God, they were devoted to God. But to love God: What did that mean?
So that was the deep impression I had, and I suppose it was my first preparation [for the faith]. The second was the contact with sacred art in the museums. I looked at them, and I enjoyed studying the artistic technique of the painter, but it was also interesting to me to ask: “Who is Christ in the painting?” “Who are the saints?” “Why does the saint look at Christ with such love?”
Was this Christian art freely available? It wasn’t completely driven underground?
Modern Christian art under communism didn’t exist, but there was ancient Christian art.
I often tell many people, especially foreigners, about the situation in our museums during the communist era. As you know, in the Tretyakov Gallery in the Kremlin, there are brilliant collections of icons, both Byzantine and Russian. Many people came to these museums to pray — not for aesthetic impressions — only for prayer because they were afraid of going to church.
The Church was under government control, and so Christians were afraid of losing their career, and so on. But when I was a schoolgirl, I often saw people praying in front of icons in the Tretyakov Gallery. The Kremlin’s museums turned into cathedrals.
Another sphere that helped maintain the faith was education. People were curious to know more about the faith, even people like me in my youth, who didn’t consider themselves believers.
There were a lot of people who didn’t know about their faith, but they found God through education because they wanted to read the Bible, or because they had an aesthetic or scientific interest.
They wanted to study art, literature, music that was connected with the Bible, for example. It was a form of dialogue with God in that period.
Edward Pentin writes