Spiritual Art Discussion

What is spiritual art? We at MOFSA have been reflecting on this question for quite a while. To begin, it is impossible to find a universal definition of spiritual, because the term has become so overloaded. For this discussion, perhaps we can simply agree that to see from a spiritual perspective is to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. Of course, not everyone will acknowledge the possibility of anything beyond the facts of life as they present themselves. Many of us, however, are drawn to a sense of the transcendent and find that we experience this most readily in art and music and poetry.

No two people can experience the same work of art in the same way. Nevertheless, we can identify a few emotional responses that might be interpreted as bellwethers of spiritual art:

  • Awe
  • Joy
  • Peace
  • Compassion
  • Non-dual awareness

The descriptions that follow are inspired by paintings that we have found, each in its own way, to be examples of spiritual art.

Wheatfield with Crows, Van Gogh

Response by Carly Ouzts

Vincent Van Gogh
Oil on canvas, 50.5 cm x 103 cm
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

This painting is generally considered to be one of van Gogh’s last works before his death. The menacing sky, the crows and the dead-end path add an ominous, almost dreamlike, quality. You can almost feel the movement of the piece. The brush strokes seem erratic at first, but upon closer inspection there seems to be an order to them, almost as a battle between the unknown and known.

The crows add another level of depth to the work. Crows can have both positive and negative meaning in the spiritual world. Regardless if they are good or bad, they are considered very powerful spiritual totems. They are ancient spiritual guides. They are flying over the fields, over the dead end roads. Are they really dead ends? Should you follow them somewhere? Where will they take you?

Overall, I feel like the piece expresses sadness and extreme loneliness, but at the same time, the wheat fields add a warm, fortifying quality. It seems to be a stark contrast to the stormy sky. The unknown can be scary, but maybe only because it is unknown.

The Sacrament of the Last Supper, Dali

Response by Carlos Alvarez

Salvador Dali
Oil on canvas, 66 x 105 inches
National Gallery of Art

There was a time in my life, long, long ago, when I was a believer in the Catholic faith. It was then that I first saw “The Last Supper” by Salvador Dalí. I was immediately struck with awe when I saw this beautiful work, all the more so when I considered the technical skills of the artist. Even on paper, the painting affected me strongly. I can only imagine what an experience it would be to be in its presence

I saw the Christ floating behind the table and God in the skies behind him. There is a beautiful light on the horizon that could be seen through Jesus’ body and the boats floating in the water. His pose seemed to inspire a sweet sense of uplift within me. I know now that what I was feeling at the time was a sense of detachment from the world. I felt the being that I am was not in my body at that moment, but suspended in an instant of peace.

The Mother of the World, Roerich

Response by Robert Oberg

Nicholas Roerich
Tempera on canvas laid on cardboard, 38 x 26 inches
Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York

From Messenger of Beauty: The Life and Visionary Art of Nicholas Roerich by Jacqueline Dector:

A woman in a cloak ornately embroidered with flora and fauna sits upon a cushion on a semicircular throne made of stone. The throne is supported by rocks, at the base of which flows the river of life. The woman’s hands are brought together in front of her chest in a stylized gesture of prayer. A veil conceals her eyes, signifying that certain mysteries of the universe are not yet known to man. An aureole circles her head, another her body. The colors make it appear that light is radiating from within her: the area within the aureoles is a pale, ethereal blue; the aureoles are surrounded by rings of light purple and then dark blue. The sky is dotted with tiny golden bodhisattvas that seem to twinkle like stars. Two small female figures kneel in the background on either side of her. One is dressed in nun’s habit and holds a book, presumably the Bible. The other is clothed in Eastern garb and holds a chest similar to the one containing the divine fire in such works as Burning of Darkness. These symbols of Western and Eastern spirituality underscore the unifying power of the Mother of the World.

Having herself pursued both Western and Eastern spiritual paths, I believe Marianne very much appreciated the unification of Western and Eastern spirituality in this Roerich painting. That may well be one of the reasons that Marianne was drawn to Roerich’s paintings in general, as she wanted to embody the unity of all spiritual teachings in her clay sculpture.

Abstract White Angel, Marianne Oberg

Response by Robert Oberg

Marianne Oberg
Porcelain, 16 x 8 x 6 inches

Marianne Oberg, in whose memory MOFSA has been created, expressed her calling in spiritual art in these words, in a letter she wrote to a friend in 2007:

“I have found that verbal spiritual teachings have a tendency to become degraded over time and misinterpreted and misunderstood.  I believe that this tendency is minimized when a spiritual teaching is transmitted via artwork (for example Egyptian and Tibetan and Indian and Mesoamerican art and the paintings of Nicholas Roerich).

“I want to embody the unity of all spiritual teachings in my clay sculpture.  The idea came to me that angels are a component of most spiritual teachings so I am working on a long-term project to embody the abstract angelic visions I see when I meditate into clay.  The airy quality of angels and the earthy grounded clay don’t mix too well (but part of what I want to do is ground this energy in the everyday world) so I have had numerous technical problems and will undoubtedly have lots more.  I have a personality that goes well with a long-term project so this is OK.”

Rest on the Flight to Egypt, Caravaggio

Response by Jennifer McCormick

Oil on canvas, 53 x 66 inches

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio painted “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” about 10 years before his death. He shows us a travel-weary holy family taking a break on their long route from Bethlehem to Egypt—a roughly 1200-mile journey. 

Regardless of our faith tradition or culture we, too, are perpetual travelers. We, too, need rest. The lifelong physical, mental, and spiritual demands of “growing ourselves” and simultaneously looking out for the wellbeing of our traveling companions is something we all do (to varying degrees) and it’s tiring. Yes, sleep and nutrition are essential but so is being bathed in loving-kindness. Fortunately, the divine is never far away.

I hope this painting reminds you how much more beautiful the trip can be when we acknowledge the presence of the divine in and around us: maybe synchronicities appear when you slow down enough to notice; maybe your dreams at night reveal new meanings, or maybe—by way of your sheer exhaustion—you decide to “sit this one out” for a bit and in doing so become the recipient of someone else’s divine creative gifts to replenish you. 

These few examples are meant to provide but a glance into the vast riches of spiritual art. Our organization hopes to foster creativity that you will find inspiring and uplifting.

The Gleaners, Jean-François Millet

Response by Martin Dunn

Jean-François Millet
Oil on canvas, 33 x 43 inches

The Gleaners debuted in Paris at the 1857 Salon de Beaux Arts exhibition. The artist, Jean-François Millet, had a long-standing interest in rural peasant life. The painting was the culmination of ten years of interest in gleaners, peasant women whose job it was to search the fields after the harvest, picking up whatever grain had been left behind. The painting shows three of them, bent over, their eyes searching the ground immediately around them. The austerity of the main characters contrasts sharply with the abundant harvest depicted in the background. An overseer on horseback adds to the feeling of not only physical, but social distance. The contrast between wealth and poverty, power and helplessness, male and female spheres is forcefully rendered. 

Clearly, Millet identified with rural life. He painted what suited his temperament. Having grown up on a farm in Normandy, he had a story to tell; a story that made the otherwise invisible peasant class visible to the upper and middle classes. I don’t know whether Millet was consciously a social critic. He was telling his story, just laying it out there and leaving the interpretation up to the viewer. Rollo May said: “The artist, like the lover, is a menace on the assembly line”. The point is, tell your story. It may or may not be disruptive. Just don’t succumb to the assembly line.