Using art and imagination to feed prayer

A friend in our group asked if we thought Mary, Jesus’s mother, had been present at the Last Supper.

There’s much we don’t know about the Last Supper. We know that many women, including Mary, had followed Jesus into Jerusalem because Scripture records their presence at the Crucifixion. And let’s face it, someone had to cook and serve that last meal. So, were women there, and was Jesus’s mother? Who knows?

That’s basically what we said to our friend, who replied, “Well, if Mary Magdalene was there, why wouldn’t Jesus’s mother be there?”

How do you know Mary Magdalene was there? we asked.

“The pictures!” she said.

Now, we had to laugh. “You have pictures of the Last Supper?” we asked. “Those are valuable.”

What she was referring to, of course, was Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper, painted hundreds of years after the event. It was created on the wall of a convent in Milan, Italy, where it remains today.

The woman had always believed that the man sitting to the left of Jesus, presumed to be “the beloved disciple,” John, was instead Mary Magdalene. The depiction is rather effeminate, I’ll admit. But no, we told her, that’s the apostle John.

A quick perusal of the Internet, that place where you must always be skeptical, reveals that there are a few others who also think Leonardo painted Mary Magdalene into this portrait.

Art can be a wonderful conduit to imaginative prayer. St. Ignatius of Loyola urged us to pray with our imagination, put ourselves into the scene, smell the odors of first century Palestine, and imagine what the road from Bethany to Jerusalem looked like on Jesus’s last trip. Feel the scorching heat. Be there.

Art can certainly enliven our imagination and help us get there.

Take, for example, my favorite, The Calling of Matthew” by Caravaggio. First, I have to ignore the medieval-looking outfits on the guys sitting at the counting table with Matthew, the tax collector. But there’s the powerful presence of Jesus by the door. The juxtaposition of light and shadow, the finger pointing firmly at Matthew, the shock on Matthew’s face as he turns his own hand to himself as if to ask incredulously, “Me?” It’s a prayerful portrait.

Then there’s St. Paul getting knocked off his horse on the way to Damascus. I knew a priest who was irritated by this fairly common assumption, engrained in many because some Italian painters included a horse in the scene.

“There’s no horse,” this priest would insist. Scripture never mentions a horse, and in Paul’s time, horses were generally used by the very rich, particularly the military. Odds are Paul was on foot or using the typical transportation of the day, an ox or a donkey.

The point is, we shouldn’t ask that art be one hundred percent realistic. Art stirs imagination and emotion. Art should move us towards mystery and deepen our perspective on God. But all art is the product of the artist’s own imagination and time. If art helps our imaginations and our prayer, go for it. If making your own art is part of your prayer, really go for it.

Music can provide the same springboard to prayer. Parishes that put a great deal of emphasis on quality music rate high in my book. Gospel? Taize? Gregorian chant? Whatever your choice, do it well.

If, like me, some art turns you off, leave it behind. For me, that includes the lily-white pictures of Jesus or Mary.

Find what feeds your imagination and your prayer and go from there.


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