The Church has long used sacred art to proclaim the Gospel, and even to help people to pray. Why not introduce your kids to the practice of praying with sacred art?
This article is adapted from the book 77 Ways to Pray with Your Kids.
The Church has long relied on art to proclaim the Gospel. This was especially true when most people were illiterate, but even today, sacred art expresses truth and wisdom that cannot be conveyed by words alone.
Use sacred art during Family Prayer Time as a way of practicing Meditative Prayer. You can find sacred art online (search for “sacred art” or “biblical art,” or see the websites below); in books (such as the many titles by Sister Wendy Beckett or the Illuminated Rosary series); or in a church or art museum. It might enrich your experience to research the artwork before you pray with it.
One kind of sacred art that is created for the specific purpose of meditative prayer is the icon. A particular tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, icons use highly symbolic “language” to engage the viewer in prayer. In fact, the artist (or iconographer) is said to “write” the icon, and the viewer is called to “read” the language of the icon with her heart. Icons usually depict some holy person—Jesus, Mary, or the saints—gazing directly at the viewer. It is through those gazing eyes that the viewer is intended to pass through the painting itself into a mystical encounter with God.
Here are a couple approaches to prayerfully meditating on sacred art with your kids.
When you read religious picture books to younger children, be sure to linger with the pictures in order to help your children respond to the story. That response to God’s word, as basic as it may be, is also a form of prayer. Ask guiding questions similar to those outlined above:
- What is happening in the picture? What details do you notice? What are the people feeling?
- If you were in the picture, where would you be? What would you be doing? When do you do or see something similar to what is in the picture?
- What do you want to say to God (or Jesus) about this picture?
Older Children and Teens
Set a prayerful atmosphere. Make the sign of the cross, followed by Thirty Seconds of Silence.
Seeing. Spend some time viewing the artwork. Ask guiding questions: What is it about? What details do you notice? What is the mood of the artwork? What are the people in the artwork doing? What do their postures and facial expressions say about their feelings? This is a good time to share any relevant information about the artwork that you may have researched, such as the possible motivation or context for the artwork’s creation. If the artwork depicts a biblical scene, read the relevant Bible passage.
Meditating. Spend time meditating on how God might be speaking to you through the artwork. Which figure do you most identify with? Why? How would you participate in the scene? Does the artist’s depiction of the subject (for example, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or a scene from the Bible) affirm or challenge the way you thought of the subject previously? If you were the artist, how would you depict the subject differently, and why? What feelings does the art surface in you? What events or issues in your life does it bring to mind? Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you as you silently meditate on these questions.
Responding. How does the artwork call you to respond? Pray your response, either out loud with the group, or silently.
Google Art Project
A massive online project run by Google and its museum collaborators; search entire museum collections using the search bar at the top of the page. Artworks are scanned at a super-high resolution.
Beyond the Written Word: Exploring Faith Through Christian Art by Eileen M. Daily (Saint Mary’s Press, 2005)
An excellent resource to help teens and older children prayerfully meditate on art.
Art and the Bible
A directory of art available online based on the books of the Bible.
Art in the Christian Tradition
An index of more than 4,000 artworks maintained by Vanderbilt University.