Mgr. et Mgr. Jan Buchta, Ph.D. /CZ/ – art educator, curator and artist – The Gallery of Visual Art in Hodonin

Visiting an art museum as a place to develop spirituality (theoretical bases)

Mgr. et Mgr. Jan Buchta, Ph.D. /CZ/ – art educator, curator and artist – The Gallery of Visual Art in Hodonin


In recent decades, we have become aware of increased efforts to focus on the phenomenon of interpreting fine art in Czech museums and galleries, which has now become an integral part of these institutions and is still growing in importance.

Artwork does not open up by itself to an observer; it needs an external impulse, either by the observer themselves or by an art teacher. The spectator’s actions, however, are irreplaceable as the teacher can only help them. The spectator must dare and persist. Nowadays, this fact has become a stumbling block — most people are spoiled by easily achievable consumption, and involving their own abilities and intellectual creativity has become too demanding.

Jan Andres, in his introduction to a treatise by Rupnikov[1], talks about the social perception of the need to cultivate people’s contemporary figurative perception, the task of visual art to enable the meeting of spirit and matter.

There are various dangers in interpreting artwork. If we observed the work only in terms of iconology, we could reduce its message only to storytelling or a thought process. Artwork, however, is not limited this way. And perhaps far more important are those precise elements that are difficult to express in words, if possible at all. An abstract piece of art tells us much about it — the deployment of artistic elements in a space can unmistakably put our internal processes (both mental and physical) into motion. The composition of colours, shapes, sounds, ratio and intensity include the same range of options that a human soul can create, and we can see how some compositions play the same songs in people, on the strings of human subconsciousness[2].

"The need to draw reasons for everyday life from spirituality is nowadays felt all the more sharply. Man is encouraged to opt for spirituality because he cannot avoid an urgent and difficult choice: either decisive and unifying spirituality as his orientation, or the banality of a life limited to a superficial sequence of events without definite meaning ... the violence of the materialistic world in the maelstrom of the spiritless technology of consumer society ... or condemnation to absurdity and despair."[3]


A glimpse into history

Clement of Alexandria, a Church Father living at the turn of the 2nd and 3rd century, says in his Call to Greeks: To serve the arts is to become a slave to sin.[4]

An interesting phenomenon in the history of religion is the rejection of Fine Arts, thus a refusal to render certain objects by certain religions. The best known is Judaism and subsequently Islam. Christianity, which also builds on Judaism, has eventually come to terms with this view positively, even though it has taken it several centuries. Gadamer says, "it was an epochal decision when a wave of iconoclasm was warded off.”[5] The debate surrounding this issue continues to inspire, even today.

If we look more closely at the Christian solution to this problem, then the possibility to artistically capture the divine is primarily based on the realized incarnation of the Son of God, and hence the very formation of the highest principles into the coarse matter: Logos is the image of God who Himself is an archetype of everything else. Man is created "to" an image, i.e. the image of Christ who is the image of God.[6]

Saint John of Damascus (ca. 675-749) was apparently the first to call paintings "the books of the uneducated." It is also interesting that the Christians along with the pagans believed that physical objects can be the seat of spiritual power, which can be transmitted by physical contact. Noteworthy is also the idea that recognition of God in a natural image is an act of intellect, not of the senses, which emphasizes its spiritual nature.[7]

In opposition to iconoclasm there stands an icon, which, in a sense, is a sacrament, and the principle that changing the painting into a spiritual object can be applied to all works of art created in a certain way.

Certainly an interesting chapter in the history of using an image for spiritual education is Reformation and Counter-Reformation. This area of the arts was hit by criticism by Luther and especially Calvin. Huguenot looting also spread across France, and therefore Cardinal de Guise asked the Council of Trent (from the current perspective, one of the most crucial doctrinal councils in church history) to adopt a position on these matters. The decree from late 1562 is brief[8] and does not bring anything substantially new, but rather confirms traditional teaching: Paintings are part of an episcopal duty to educate. A warning was added against the idea that images hide automatic divine power in themselves. However, as a result of this decree, a painting "explosion" occurred.[9]

The Second Vatican Council also notes the importance of art in human life. In the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Article 62, it is noted that art "... seeks to express the very essence of man, his problems and experience gained by his efforts to obtain knowledge and improve himself and the world; art wants to discover man’s place in history and the universe, to illuminate his misery and joys, needs and abilities, and set out a better fate for man. So it is able to elevate a human life and reflect it in many different forms according to the diversity of periods and countries."[10] Pope John Paul II expresses this tendency to the fullest: "In order that the Church may convey the message entrusted to her by Christ, it needs art."[11]

Abstract Art and Spirituality

In 1986, at the Regional Museum of Art in Los Angeles, there was an exhibition called Spirituality in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 showcasing one of the largest and most comprehensive sets of abstract art. It was accompanied by a voluminous catalogue with many essays by prominent art historians. These texts reflected a tendency to focus on the philosophical and symbolic background of abstraction and its relation to theosophy, occultism, Zen Buddhism, spiritualism and various other esoteric systems of thought that shaped the series of the first abstract expressions.[12]

As Piet Mondrian himself writes: "We should not slide over the surface of the natural, but in a sense, we should see through it."[13]

John Golding in his book Ways to Abstract Art focuses precisely on the intellectual context in the works of the most prominent pioneers of abstract painting (Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky) and their famous followers (Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still) and discovers that their interest in the metaphysical area is crucial to their work. For example, he recalls that in the 1890s and the first two decades of the twentieth century, theosophy, which can perhaps be described as a kind of western Buddhism, was gaining wide popularity. The secret teachings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky were published in 1888, and as Mondrian confessed to his friend Theo van Doesburg, this book gave him "everything".[14]

In one place in his book On spirituality in Art, Wasily Kandinsky cites the founder of the so-called Rosicrucian salons, Joséphin Péladan, who already in the early 1880s, had fiercely criticized all "ochlocratic" art.

One of the key pioneering works in the field of abstract sculpture in the Czech lands is the work of the Czech author Hana Wichterlová who uniquely linked her existential yearning for spiritual development with the desire to create sculptural works. For Wichterlová, creating sculptures was the means of her spiritual maturing and understanding of spiritual principles, as she mentions in her memoirs.[15]

During her studies in Paris in the period from 1926 to 1930, Hana Wichterlová attended lectures by Frantisek Kupka[16] whose work is inextricably linked with nascent abstract painting. His interest in mysticism and cosmology[17] is typical, as with the majority of the pioneers of abstract painting.

Art therapy and development of spirituality

Spiritual aspects can also be found in the field of art therapy. Indeed, the very nature of art therapy — from which it draws its power and efficiency — is the distinctive impact of the artwork on all aspects of a person. Jaroslava Šicková-Fabrici in her Foundations of Art Therapy writes about her journey to art therapy and confesses her lifelong perception of art as a phenomenon that is able to "convey many things of a mundane, but also a spiritual life"[18], not only for children with a handicap, but for people in general. She finds a potential for healing art, which she extensively uses in her practice. In this way, a principle uttered in the introduction to her book applies to her — art for human's sake and art for health's sake (L'Art pour la santé). She argues with the statement "art for art's sake" (L'Art pour L'Art) and highlights the healing and preventive potential of art, which is to "mobilize human yearning for spirituality, dignity, hope, transcendence, meaning, to initiate both in a creator and an observer the processes that would activate them not to hurt themselves, others, or nature, but on the contrary, to make them try to harmonize and heal their (mental, physical, spiritual) whole being, relationships with people and the environment in which they live".[19]

Art therapy thus indicates the important properties of art — its metaphorical feature, ability to integrate personality and a group and facilitate communication, as well as its ability to be the means to vent emotions, sublimation and catharsis. These features do not apply only to those who participate in artistic creation (the principle mostly used in art therapy), but similarly affects observers who open themselves up to artwork. In this way, art therapy is split into receptive (perception of artwork) and productive (specific creative activity). Šicková-Fabrici states that "art unquestionably has a power that may strongly affect an observer, influence him, initiate changes in his attitudes to life, and can for example, convey morals and ethics in a way that is more effective than commands and justifications consisting in rational arguments (because it is given in a metaphorical, figurative language)."[20]

Obviously, art therapy also widely uses the cathartic function of art. However, this principle can also be seen in many contemporary works when authors "paint themselves out" of their depression and other negative states. It is then a question of whether to support issuing such works, which may serve to purify the author, but on the other hand, may burden the general public and induce such negative states in them. Would it not be better then, to use these artworks more specifically, precisely as art therapy shows?

Czech contemporary art pedagogy and spirituality

Current aesthetic education should lead a child, and later a young person, to openness in communication, and should nourish the need to question the spiritual values of life. "Education should awaken the interest (of a child) in its own creation which is an expression of mythical consciousness, and at the same time, the first step towards an individual interpretation of culture, as a phenomenon marked by mythical archetypes," says Hana Babyrádová.[21]

In 1992, Marta Pohnerová published a minor treatise called Spiritual and Sensory Education in which she presents her method of working with children with practical examples and suggestions of methods and subject matter. In 1995 and 1997, two further continuations of this publication followed, developing it in a similar spirit and scope. Pohnerová, a more practically oriented writer, seeks to "ensure that a child is able to experience the world with all its senses", and education should focus primarily on developing the spiritual unity of a person with the world. She highlights natural forms that are very close to a person and are immediately connected with unconsciousness and mythical thinking. Thus, the strong influence of Jung can be recognized in her concepts. In a rather poetic and meditative form, she draws attention to important aspects she encounters in her practice: "The inner light of a painting is a spiritual light that leads us to meditation, deeper reflection, knowledge of our own soul."[22]

George David follows up on the Czech pedagogical tradition where in his texts he builds on the phenomenological philosophy of Jan Patočka who followed the heritage of the spiritual and sensory education of J. A. Comenius, especially his doctrine on the trinity of perception, thinking and movement in the space of the human soul, where, when first seen, seemingly incongruous areas unite — platonic ideas and objects of the everyday world, which receive spiritual significance here. Merging the sacred and the profane is allowed by ritualization and creating myths out of life attitudes through the experience of creation. The psychology of visual perception and creation of visual order meet here, along with the psychology of unconsciousness, which reveals the hidden order of the universe, drawing on the creative process.[23]

Art and beauty — spiritual aspects

To ask today about the relationship between spirituality and art is as hard as answering the questions: What is art? What is beauty? What is morality? or even if any absolute being exists.[24] Generally, these terms are considered to be relative and the statements about them subjective, without any general validity. Not so, however, from the viewpoint of faith or spirituality. As they answer positively to the question of the existence of the absolute being (God), they may more soundly define further concepts from this basic concept because they are directly related to it, and therefore participate in its absoluteness.

It is good to realize that religions do not speak only through their sacred texts and theological writings, through their institutions or committed movements and moral practices, but also through their rituals, poetry, architecture, music, painting and sculpture. [25] Pope John Paul II, who at first hand experienced the creative states of artists, in his Letter to Artists, suggests the mission of creators is “To search for new revelations of beauty." [26]

The concept of beauty in art has been much discussed within the last hundred years, and a clear consensus on its meaning does not exist. After World War I Dadaism emerged, extending the concept of beauty to commonly used industrial items while also undermining the notion of authorship of work. After the Second World War, with new artistic directions appearing, the situation became even more difficult, and this trend has continued until today when the mix of fine art directions is perfectly mingled. On one hand, extremes are our borders according to which we can measure. On the other hand, it is necessary to clarify whether an extreme still falls into the phenomenon of art or not. In this sense, there is the interesting idea of Kandinsky who determines the boundaries of this concept solely by the presence of a spiritual element in the work of an artist.[27]

Without understanding beauty, we will not get to the bottom of the issue in our attempt to understand art. Beauty is not just something superficial, some ornament addible to a thing, it more likely inheres in the very heart. Scholasticism reminds us that beauty is a "radiation of truth". This means that beauty appears where a form corresponds to the internal content, where the being becomes such as it should be according to its deepest nature.[28] The German spiritual thinker Bernhardt speaks similarly: "The sense of beauty is connected with the primordial laws of creation; it is an expression of a hitherto hidden knowledge of perfection. For every man, it is an unmistakable indicator of the path."[29]

At the beginning of 2015, Pope Francis in his speech on education talks about the New Covenant in education, and assigns art and beauty an important role, when he says: "We cannot reach harmony if we are unable to perceive beauty. In each one of us, in each nation, it is necessary to look for beauty, which is the foundation of our art — music, painting, sculpture and literature."[30]



In her article Theological Education at the Art Museum[31] Eileen M. Daily expresses the opinion that time has progressed sufficiently for galleries to implement educational programs focusing on religious education. Subject matters of paintings themselves, if we look at the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and 19th-century art, are by their very nature specifically predetermined to it since most of the authors created their works with the aim to enrich the spiritual life of the audience. Only the secularization of society cut off the objects from their target groups. As she notes, so far we can only rarely see religiously oriented exhibitions, focused for example on certain aspects of Christian art, with an appropriate educational program being created. And if we look at programs accompanying permanent expositions, we will search in vain for such a program. She also raises the question of whether an educator who is trying to instill in his/her wards all the layers of Renaissance or Gothic artwork down to its individual nuances, can achieve this goal unless he or she has an adequate theological education and unless he or she is of the faith of the specific religion for which the work was made.

Today, we have no doubts that a gallery curator should be well acquainted with the area of pedagogy, art techniques and art history, but so far no one even dares to speak about the need for theological education. Ms Daily sees the situation similarly from an American context and she also expresses her concern that the leaders of museums would probably prevent religious education in their institutions.


[1] Marko I. Rupnik, Až se stanou umění a život duchovními. Velehrad 1997.

[2]C. G. Jung, The archetypes and The Collective Unconscious. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.

[3] Stefano de Fiores a Tullo Goffi. Nuovo dizionario di spiritualità. Roma 1979.

[4] Maie-Madeleine Davy, Initiation à la symbolique romane (XIIe siècle). Paris 1977. p. 127.

[5]Hans-Georg Gadamer, Die Aktualität des Schönen : Kunst als Spiel Symbol und Fest. Stuttgart, 1983.p. 5-6.

[6] A. H. Armstrong, The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy. Cambridge 1967. p. 572. cf John W. De Gruchy, Christianity, Art and Transformation: Theological Aesthetics in the Struggle for Justice. Cambridge 2003. p. 25-26

[7] Ibidem, p. 573-583. cf Egon Sendler, L'icone, image de l'invisible: elements de theologie, esthetique et technique. Desclée de Brouwer, 1987.

[8] It was also due to the fact that this decree was rapidly discussed, along with three other decrees, for fear of the death of the Pope. Cf Klaus Schatz, Allgemeine Konzilien - Brennpunkte der Kirchengeschichte. Schoningh, 1997. p. 200-201.

[9] Alain Besançon, L'Image interdite. Une histoire intellectuelle de l'iconoclasme. Fayard 1994. p. 170nn.

[10] Gaudium et spes. In: Dokumenty II. vatikánského koncilu. Praha 1995. p. 236.

[11]Pope John Paul II. Letter to Artists. Liturgy Training Pubns 1999. p. 13.

[12] John Golding, Paths to the Absolute. Princeton University Press 2000. p. 5.

[13] Piet Mondrian, Natural reality and abstract reality: an essay in trialogue form. New York 1995.

[14] Carel Blotkamp, Mondrian the art of destruction. London 1994. p. 14.

[15] Srov. Eva Jůzová a Michal Jůza. Sochařka Hana Wichterlová. Litoměřice 2000.

[16] Ibidem, p. 22.

[17] František Kupka, Tvoření v umění výtvarném. Praha 1999.

[18]Jaroslava Šicková-Fabrici, Základy arteterapie. Praha, 2008. p. 16.

[19]Ibidem, p. 19.

[20] Ibidem, p. 22.

[21] Hana Babyrádová, Symbol v dětském výtvarném projevu. Brno 1999. p. 14.

[22] Marta Pohnerová, Duchovní a smyslová výchova. Polička 1992.

[23] Jiří David, Století dítěte a výzva obrazů. Brno 2008. p. 321.

[24] Jana Hubáčková, Spiritualita, umění a mravnost. In: Spiritualita. Brno 2006. p. 435.

[25] Peta Goldburg, Approaching the Teaching of Religious Education Through the Creative Arts. In: International Handbook of the Religious, Moral and Spiritual Dimensions in Education. Dordrecht 2008. p. 1237.

[26]Pope John Paul II. Letter to Artists. Liturgy Training Pubns 1999. (Note 11).

[27] Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Dover Publications 1977. p. 108.

[28] Romano Guardini, Über das Wesen des Kunstwerks. Matthias-Grnnewald-Verlag 2005. p. 44.

[29] Oskar Ernst Bernhardt, Im Lichte der Wahrheit. Stuttgart 2012. p. 734-735.

[30] Discourse of Pope Francis broadcast in Vatikánský magazín on Proglas radio, 17th February, 2015.

[31] Eileen M. Daily, Theological Education at the Art Museum. Journal of Adult Theological Education. London 2009, No. 6, p. 116-129.

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