||IMAGE AND SPIRIT: FINDING MEANING IN VISUAL ART
Augsburg Books, 171 pages, $16.99
Reviewed by MARY SCHAFFER
Karen Stone addresses her book Image and Spirit to those who are
frustrated at their first (or hundredth) encounter with a work of visual art
that seems inscrutable or even meaningless, but who want
up arts meaning and even to find in it the Spirits voice. She
also hopes that it might serve artists in their spiritual quest.
Ms. Stone begins with the notion that nothing intrinsic to any work of
art precludes a spiritual interpretation because its meaning is not merely
encoded by the artist, an objective truth waiting to be deciphered. Rather,
what a work of art means is derived from the viewer actively engaging with it.
That is why subject matter alone cannot determine a works spiritual
Ms. Stone, who is both an artist and an art educator, puts her skills to
effective use in this book, guiding her readers to disciplined looking in
order to experience a work of art as an “embodied communication of
immaterial reality.” Because Ms. Stone is also a person of faith, she
understands clearly that this communication of immaterial reality -- that
is to say, spiritual truth -- taps directly into a soul’s hunger for
enlightenment and, ultimately, speaks to its longing for union with God.
The text of Image and Spirit is organized into three parts. Part
I provides a theological and aesthetic foundation for Ms. Stones
understanding of art as visible Word, as an embodiment of the
transcendent that not only points to mystery but participates in it by
reenacting some fragment of its truth.
Part II provides specific tools for looking at art and thinking
critically about what one sees. This section gives solid, basic information
about the elements of visual language. It also talks about how to evaluate
related information about a work of art or its maker: for example, historical
and social contexts, the artists biography, influences and oeuvre.
Part III moves the discussion from individual to communal experience of
visual art. Following the very fine section on viewing art, this section seems
somewhat weak and generalized. This is disappointing because there is a great
need in faith communities, in church-renovating and building committees, in
seminaries and schools that train lay ministers for guidance about the
critically formative (or deformative) role art plays. Ms. Stone has
successfully argued that the potency of art is not to be dismissed but does not
really tackle how to invest the worshiping church with theologically astute
receptivity to the visible Word.
Ms. Stone includes a wealth of helpful apparatus at the end of the book:
notes, bibliography, questions and activities for discussion. There is also an
insert of 14 color reproductions. While the book does not focus on explicitly
religious art, Ms. Stone writes especially for people of faith from all
walks of life, both lay and clergy, who share an active interest in art and a
desire for help in interpreting it. The books clarity, sound
grounding in the disciplines of both art and theology and its abundance of
ideas make this text highly useful and a uniquely worthwhile resource.
||BEAUTY: THE INVISIBLE EMBRACE
By John ODonohue
Publishers, 261 pages, $23.95
Reviewed by MARY SCHAFFER
In our anxious and uncertain times when social structures we thought
secure totter, the habit of gentleness dies out, says author John
ODonohue. We become blind: Nature is rifled, politics eschews
vision and becomes the obsessive servant of economics, and religion opts for
the mathematics of system and forgets its mystical flame. To this world,
broken and jaded, Mr. ODonohue suggests a surprising remedy: People need
desperately to reawaken their perceptions and surrender to beauty.
This central assertion in Beauty: The Invisible Embrace
(published in Great Britain under the title Divine Beauty in 2003) might
be traced in the range of Mr. ODonohues written work to date. His
doctoral dissertation at Tübingen, Germany, was a groundbreaking study of
Hegels philosophy, offering a new concept of Person. His books of poetry
perpetuate the mystical heritage of his beloved Ireland. In his widely
acclaimed book Anam Cara, he brings ancient Celtic wisdom to bear on the
contemporary hunger for meaningful relationship by exploring being and longing,
two essential components of human existence.
Beauty draws on all these explorations but formulates them
differently. Erudite with the philosophical wisdom of the past, poetic, fluent
in the traditions of Celtic spirituality and passionate about Irelands
powerful land and seascapes, Mr. ODonohue intends Beauty as a
series of encounters with various forms of the Beautiful that will mirror
in its form beautys capacity to unify feeling, thought and dream.
The author quickly distinguishes beauty from glamour and other
superficial pretenders to the title. Rather than defining beauty, he
characterizes its elusive behavior and evocative consequences: To behold
beauty dignifies your life, it heals you and calls you out beyond the smallness
of your own self-limitation to experience new horizons. To experience beauty is
to have your life enlarged. An experience of beauty, Mr. ODonohue
reminds us, gives us a sense of homecoming and makes us feel most alive by
filling the needs of our souls. Still, he cautions, beauty never
satisfies though she intensifies our longing and refines it.
It calls us
to feel, think and act beautifully in the world: to create and live a life that
awakens the Beautiful.
Mr. ODonohue gently evokes the readers own memories of
beauty by recounting little stories from his life and reflecting on things he
has seen or heard. That is why at first read the book may seem nearly as casual
and disjointed as collected notes from a theme book on beauty. But if the work
is read contemplatively, it becomes apparent that by this slow coaxing the
author widens the realm that beauty inhabits in the readers imagination
-- from the expected to the startling, from music and color and dance to
imperfection and illness, even to death.
Mr. ODonohue has indeed managed to fashion a mirror of beauty,
holding feeling, thought and dream in unity, thereby demonstrating his premise
that beauty holds the real and ideal in connection and conversation. He
persuasively argues his claim that beauty has the power to transform this bleak
world by rekindling the readers desire to seek out beauty, to be
nourished by beauty and to do what it takes to live beautifully.