How the Visual Arts Can Enrich Your Time in God’s Word

Considering religious art can help you experience Scripture in a new way

God saw all that he had made—and it was very good!

Genesis 1:31a NET

This is the final installment in a five-part series sharing creative ways to engage with God’s Word. Using practices from The Abide Bible, these blogs will guide you in slowing down and letting Scripture refresh your heart. Today, you’ll learn how you can engage with the Bible by considering visual works of art.

When I turned 10, my parents gave me a choice: art or dance lessons.

While dodging the embarrassment of a leotard, I accidentally found a life-long hobby. And through art lessons, a whole new world opened to me.

Now, there are few things I love more than visiting an art museum.

I always seek out the French Impressionists first. Next, I see which special exhibitions are offered. Then I meander until I’ve at least caught a glimpse of everything. Okay, almost everything. True confession: I used to skip the religious art section. Halos, altar pieces, and dramatic, buff men in flowing togas just weren’t compelling to me. It felt like a waste of time.

Until I saw Michelangelo’s Pietà in Rome.

Sitting on the rock of Golgotha, Mary holds her lifeless son as one would hold a baby. Her left hand guides the viewer’s gaze to his body. As I looked at the Scripture-inspired scene recreated in marble, I was suddenly struck by a thought: He actually died for me. My heart broke. I hid in the back of the tour group, crying. Here was a mother, asking me to consider her son’s death. It was personal. It felt almost like I was standing there with the women gathered at the cross, witnessing Mary’s grief:

And all those who knew Jesus stood at a distance, and the women who had followed him from Galilee saw these things.

Luke 23:49 NET

I lingered for as long as I could.

Did I believe Jesus died for me before this experience? Yes. Had I walked past countless depictions of Christ’s death and resurrection before making it to this point on the tour? Yes. What was different that day in Rome? I’m not totally sure, but I’ll tell you one of the differences I remember.

I looked.

I took the time to notice the composition, the folds in the garments, the faces, and the overall impression the piece made on me. I was quiet and patient enough to look through Michelangelo’s eyes. And as I looked, a deep, biblical truth came alive for me in a way it never had before.

Do I love all religious artwork now? Nope. But my Michelangelo experience taught me that art is a great way to reflect on God’s Word—and on God’s own artistic nature as creator of the universe. There are many artists from all over the world who can help you engage with the Scriptures and bring these biblical ideas from your head to your heart.

Have you ever used the visual arts to engage with the Bible? Sculptures, paintings, icons, tapestries, and even the ornate design of cathedrals and churches around the world—all these forms of visual art can help open our eyes to God’s Word.

If the visual arts have helped you understand biblical truths, you probably have your own story of illumination. But if you haven’t experienced this approach to Scripture engagement yet, I recognize that it can be an intimidating process. In my own experience, visual art is rarely modeled as a spiritual discipline. For me, church has been a place for musicians and sometimes actors, but not the visual arts. Now, I find that viewing visual art can enrich my time in Scripture.

A word of warning: art requires discernment and time.

All artwork portrays the individual artist’s views. The subject matter may be religious, but it may not be Christian. It could be a critique or an affirmation of faith. Visual art isn’t always rated “G.” Sometimes the artwork doesn’t share its secrets quickly and requires careful contemplation. The process can’t be rushed. And we do well to remember that ultimate authority comes only from God’s Word, not the imagination of an artist. Ultimately the visual arts are a tool we can use to engage more deeply with Scripture. But I hope my own experience inspires you to try adding this tool to your Scripture engagement toolkit.

If you’re interested in incorporating the visual arts as you read the Bible, here’s a short “how-to” list to get you started.

A Basic Outline for Using the Visual Arts in Spiritual Formation

Choose a Compelling Piece

Start with a piece of art you find compelling. See if your favorite artist has any religious art or do a web search on famous museums and scroll. It will be easier to start with illustrative pieces—pieces that depict a biblical narrative. It will also be easier if you find the artwork to be interesting, beautiful, or eye-catching as you master this process.

Pray Before You Begin

Ask God to quiet your heart and allow you to hear him as you engage with his Word and consider the artwork. Invite the Holy Spirit to into your time in Scripture.

Read the Scriptural Inspiration

Next, read the Scripture passage (or passages) illustrated in the artwork. Familiarize yourself with the story. Feel free to jump back and forth between the artwork and the passage.

Reflect on the Artwork

Reflect on the artwork. This may take some time. I like to reflect by asking myself questions. Here are a few examples:

Consider the composition

  • Which characters are portrayed from the biblical narrative?
  • Where are the various characters placed in the piece?
  • What do you notice about how these characters are portrayed?
  • Does light play a role?
  • Is the artwork dynamic or static?

Consider the emotions displayed

  • Is there an aspect of the artwork I identify with emotionally? Why?
  • Would I depict any of the emotions in this piece differently? Why?
  • Does this piece help me connect to the passage on a deeper level? How?

Consider the symbolism

  • Do the colors represent anything?
  • Are there any symbols or words in the piece? What do they add?

Consider your response

  • Did you learn anything from this encounter with visual art and God’s Word?
  • How can you put this experience into practice?

As you use visual art to enrich your Scripture engagement, I hope you don’t keep what you’ve learned to yourself! Write down your thoughts and share your reflections with others. I often wish that I had told my friend in Rome about my moment reflecting on the Gospel in front of Michelangelo’s sculpture. I wonder what conversations would have started in front of the Pietà?

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Katelyn Rodman
Katelyn Rodman

Katelyn Rodman is an instructor for the Taylor University Center for Scripture Engagement and has been serving in vocational children's ministry for the last decade. She currently resides in Upland, Indiana with her husband, Dr. Daniel Rodman, and their mischievous cat, Mia.

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