In the final days of 2015, I made a pilgrimage to the Seattle Art Museum.
Now, I live in Seattle, so it wasn’t a long journey. In fact, the most arduous part of it was that I had to wait for the bus. What is consistent with many pilgrimages, though, is that I had been planning this trip for a long time.
For five years now I’ve gone on a personal day-retreat at the end of December to mark the closing of another year. It’s a “me day”—a way to transition from one year to the next with both delight and intention—and this year it included a visit to the Seattle Art Museum. They were displaying an exhibition entitled “Intimate Impressionism,” and when I received the postcard in the mail toward the end of the summer announcing the exhibit, I knew it would be something to save for the day that has become one of my favorite days, because visiting art museums has become one of my favorite things.
I’ve been drawn to art from a young age. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, which means along with painting, drawing, and printmaking, I studied art history. I’ve also traveled throughout Europe, visiting many of the world’s finest art museums. However, despite my extensive background, the truth remains: my favorite artists are the Impressionists, my favorite period Impressionism.
I’ve seen so many Monet posters in hospitals and Van Gogh paintings printed on mousepads that it feels a bit cliché—certainly the precision of Caravaggio or the whimsy of Chagall should pique my interest more, but it’s not the case. There’s just something about the strokes of the Impressionists, the subjects of the still lifes, and the varied palettes of color used to enliven a scene that have forever captivated me, and when I visited the “Intimate Impressionism” exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum on my special day, I finally figured out why:
Impressionism is a lot like faith.
As I roamed the galleries, taking in each painting in turn—the light, the strokes, the unexpected colors—I couldn’t help but see them as reflections on the spiritual journey offering insight on our experience of the Sacred and what speaks to our soul. Leaving the Seattle Art Museum that day, I felt as if I were leaving a sanctuary, the Impressionist masters my teachers and priests along the way.
That day I discovered five things that I feel Impressionism can teach us about the spiritual journey:
1. When you are present, beauty can be found in even the most ordinary of places.
The Impressionists are known for painting scenes of everyday life—a slab of butter, flowers on a mantle, picnickers at the beach, a haystack in every light imaginable (I’m looking at you, Monet). Because they are present to these scenes, they’re able to transpose them into snapshots of beauty that might otherwise go unnoticed. When we become present to the ordinary elements of daily life, we, too, can begin to see their beauty—and the Sacred—shining through in ways we’ve never before noticed.
2. Our experiences are simply impressions of something greater.
The scenes captured by the Impressionists don’t attempt to be exact replicas—they’re simply allusions. In the same way, our experience of the Divine is only an impression. But, as with the paintings of the Impressionists, I feel our experiences are all the more beautiful for it.
3. Each impression is a unique expression.
Though one artist might try to imitate another, their expression of their subject remains unique. Just as our impressions of the Divine vary, so do our expressions of faith. How beautiful would it be if, instead of being judgmental or apprehensive, we engaged those places of difference like a gallery of our individual spiritual journeys and our collective search for the Sacred?
4. What seems like simply brushstrokes up close is transformed in the bigger picture.
One of my favorite ways to experience an Impressionist painting is to stand up close enough to see the brushstrokes—the lines on the canvas, the heavy application of paint, the specks of color in unexpected places. Upon standing back I’m surprised to see that that line was a tree, the dollop of paint was a sail, and that pale pink dot was a woman’s face hidden under a bonnet. While up close these impressions simply seem like marks on a page, standing back the image is obvious. The spiritual journey is like this too—each day a stroke, each celebration a highlight, each season of struggle a mess of darkness hidden in the corner. However, with a few steps back and a fresh perspective, we’re often able to see the masterpiece that is being painted by the Divine.
5. We are invited to be participants.
Because of its focus on snapshots of everyday occurrences, Impressionism seems to have a way of inviting the onlooker to join as a participant in the scene. In a painting looking down on a street parade, you are the observer from high above taking in the fanfare below; a still life of a bowl of peaches on a sunlit cottage table transports you to summertime, beckoning you sit and savor. In the same way, when it comes to faith, we’re not simply called to be observers but to instead be participants, stepping into and fully engaging the scene the Divine is painting before us.
What has art taught you about faith? What is your impression of the spiritual journey, and how do you express it?