Timothy Verdon provides us with half a century of his study and knowledge of Christian art in his book Art and Prayer, The Beauty of Turning to God. After reading Culture Care on the flight west, reading Verdon’s text on the flight home kept the theme about faith and art going. While Culture Care outlined the value of having beauty in daily life, Art and Prayer gives the reader an appreciation of the art that has been created over centuries to enhance the meditative process.
In the 300 pages of text, Verdon includes nearly 100 reproductions of works of art on various themes about prayer. While some of these we readily recognize, he presents others from across European churches and museums which may be unfamiliar to us. Yet, even for those which quickly register with our eye, he describes details and interpretations that are no longer part of our common knowledge of church history.
Art and Prayer covers several themes about the meditation process. He illustrate the spaces where prayer occurs, both private and public. He discusses styles of prayer, such as during the liturgy and communion, prayers of pleading and contemplation. He discussed introspection that leads to prayer, such as isolation from society, fasting, reading, and approaching death. He puts these into the context of church history, artistic development, and personal journeys.
Verdon is a Catholic priest, and as such, he filters prayer and art through a Catholic perspective. This is good, in that most art in the church has come from the Catholic tradition. For readers who are not Catholic, this can bring a better understanding of how prayer fits into the rituals of the Catholic church. For those who follow Protestant traditions, the formality of prayer may seem programmed. Verdon explains why this has been important to the continuity of traditions that have continued for centuries.
Art and Prayer is not a quick read. The theological points that Verdon discusses are complicated at times, especially for non-Catholic readers. But, to the delight of art history minded readers, he describes the art in great detail. He might spend a couple of pages bringing details of themes, artistic technique, and history of the paintings to our attention. He also includes many scriptural reference to support his points.
If one is really deliberate in reading, one should have a copy of the Bible next to this book. But, taking time to flip back-and-forth between his descriptions and the reproduction of the art, and then cross-referencing the Biblical text, becomes a prayer to itself. Or, as he spends a full chapter on Lectio Divina, reading is a meditative process. Oh, did I mention that you should have a Latin dictionary nearby too?!