In order for art to be truly, deeply allied with the Gospel, the relationship with God must be personal. The principle is not new to Evangelical Christianity–it was developed by Ignatius of Loyola for the Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius, in turn was inspired by Francis of Assisi. Pope John Paul II cites that saint, as well as Bonaventure:
The knowledge conferred by faith is of a different kind: it presupposes a personal encounter with God in Jesus Christ. Yet this knowledge too can be enriched by artistic intuition. An eloquent example of aesthetic contemplation sublimated in faith are, for example, the works of Fra Angelico. No less notable in this regard is the ecstatic lauda, which Saint Francis of Assisi twice repeats in the chartula which he composed after receiving the stigmata of Christ on the mountain of La Verna: “You are beauty… You are beauty!”.(Lodi di Dio Altissimo, vv. 7 and 10: Fonti Francescane, No. 261, Padua 1982, p. 177) Saint Bonaventure comments: “In things of beauty, he contemplated the One who is supremely beautiful, and, led by the footprints he found in creatures, he followed the Beloved everywhere”.(Legenda Maior, IX, 1: Fonti Francesane, No. 1162, loc. cit., p. 911)
The mysticism of the great saints and doctors is immensely appealing to many artists. It is why, thankfully, we will likely never see theological treatises set to music or depicted in visual art. Artists can be misinterpreted, to be sure. Not unlike dense rational treatises on religion. If a seeker really wants to probe deeply toward God, I would always counsel someone to begin with art, not reason.
Pope John Paul II’s Letter To Artists is available in its entirety online here.