Summer Excursions: Encountering the Sacred at the National Gallery of Art

The Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli

The Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli

When going on vacation or a quick trip for the day or weekend, some people like to simply get away from it all and leisurely sit on the beach and perhaps read a good book. Others go to historic sites  or festivals, while still others prefer to spend some time in museums where they might view historical artifacts or works of art.

Here in our nation’s capital, we have no shortage of outstanding museums to visit, including the National Gallery of Art, which this year is celebrating its 75th anniversary. There is no need to travel all the way to Florence, Rome or Paris to see Renaissance masterpieces by Botticelli, Raphael, Fra Angelico, Perugino, Giotto, El Greco, Rubens, and Leonardo da Vinci. You can see them right here, together with works by later artists like Vermeer, Rembrandt, Monet, van Gogh, and others.

As people of faith, we can recognize in all genuine art a sharing in the creativity of our heavenly Creator. “With loving regard,” said Saint John Paul II, “the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of his own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in his creative power” (Letter to Artists, 1). Artists in this respect might be said to have a special vocation which is at the service of transcendent beauty, truth and the ultimate.

This vocation expresses itself in a special way in sacred art, which points to the beyond in a way that heaven and earth touch. Such works can nourish our faith, illuminate the scriptures, and instill fellowship with the saints depicted (CCC 1160, 1192).

Sacred art can also be an instrument of evangelization, exposing people to the beauty of our Christian faith and the mystery of Jesus Christ. This is made abundantly clear when visiting the National Gallery.

Visitors to this art museum on the Mall experience right from the start the irresistibility of the sacred bursting into the secular world. Beginning with the pre-Renaissance period, the first image in the first room is an altarpiece from 1270-75 entitled “The Mourning Madonna” portraying our Blessed Mother Mary at the Crucifixion. Also here are scenes of the Nativity, the baptism of Jesus, the call of Peter, and the Crucifixion. Especially striking is the 1324 “Coronation of the Virgin,” attributed to Paolo Veneziano, where Jesus and Mary seem to jump out at you in a three-dimensional aspect.

One could easily spend an entire afternoon in this first room. What follows is an amazing collection that speaks to the soul. For the next 50-plus rooms, practically the whole of the first wing of the museum, you will see work after work of Christian sacred art. By far the most popular subject for artists and their patrons here is the Madonna and Child, sometimes with Mary holding the infant Jesus, other times she is kneeling in adoration, such as those produced by Botticelli, Raphael, Fra Angelico, Perugino, Giotto, and others. In some of these works, like the intimate nighttime scene in Giovanni Savoldo’s 1530 “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” the infant Jesus, Light of the world, seems to radiate with a light which illuminates the faces of those around him.

As you view these works, you may notice the same symbolic images again and again – a dove, streaming rays, lilies, the colors red and blue, a key, a book or quill, a peacock and others. What do they mean? Other questions may arise: What is going on in the scene? Who are the people being depicted? This kind of active engagement with the artwork may be a sign for you to go and learn more about the faith.

The sacred art found in the National Gallery invites us to meditate on and deepen our faith. Like last year’s extraordinary “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother and Idea” exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, it also offers a wonderful opportunity for those people who do not share our faith to be exposed to its beauty, which might even inspire them to continue the journey toward Christ.

Another example of encountering the sacred is coming soon with the feature film, Ben-Hur, which is co-produced by the same people that made The Son of God. Opening on August 19, this thrilling tale brings us face-to-face with the excitement of an encounter with Jesus and his power to change the world.

Whether painting, sculpture or film, sacred art enriches the believer and society alike as it expresses the inmost reality of the human person and points us to the transcendent. Even in the secular world, with the National Gallery exhibitions, the upcoming Ben-Hur, and elsewhere, the beauty and love of the Lord breaks out to touch people. In this way they can be transformed and, through them, the world.