Using art in the Religion class, a pedagogical resource

Omnes-March 18, 2018-Reading time: 8 minutes

A picture is worth a thousand words, goes the well-known saying. And this is what is suggested here to Religion teachers as one of the possible pedagogical resources for teaching the subject: explaining the truths of the Christian faith with the help of the great number of pictorial works that can be found in museums.

- Arturo Cañamares Pascual

Since beauty is a property of created things, and everything that exists has been created by God (or by human beings, who have also been created and loved by God), teaching using beauty brings us closer to the contemplation of God.

Philosophers say that beauty is a transcendental of being: it is the taste for truth and goodness in what we see. When we contemplate something beautiful it causes us pleasure, attracting our gaze or hearing.

Beauty in art is a epiphanya manifestation of God to mankind (cf. Letter to artistsJohn Paul II). Thanks to artists, the mystery of God is more accessible (cf. Insegnamenti IIPaul VI).

Velázquez with his painting Christ Crucified or Mel Gibson with his film The Passion have brought us closer to the amazing mystery of the Lord's death; the mystery of Christmas shown in its simplicity by St. Francis in his first "living" Nativity, or thanks to so many representations of Bethlehem in our homes with the classic figurines, make it easier for us to understand and live that mystery.

The world needs beauty in order not to fall into monotony, sadness or despair. Beauty, like truth, sows joy in the hearts of men; it is the precious fruit that resists the usury of time, that unites generations and makes them communicate in admiration. Beauty, Plato said, is like a jolt that awakens us from our slumber, makes us come out of ourselves and lifts us up.

Somehow, God becomes present in beauty. How apt was the title of the exhibition of religious art during WYD 2011 at the Prado Museum: The Word made image!

The experience of beauty is necessary for the search for meaning and happiness, because it brings us closer to reality and illuminates it (Speech to the artistsBenedict XVI).

Von Bhaltasar, says that the via pulchritudinisThe way of beauty, the way of beauty, makes us walk towards the contemplation of what is true and good. But when someone rejects beauty, then he can no longer pray and, in the end, he will not be able to love.

The great mystics (St. Teresa of Jesus, St. John of the Cross) contemplated God and fell in love with His Beauty, which they saw in the song of a little bird, in a river, in a sculpture of Christ....

It is often said that there is nothing written about tastes. Are you sure? There is much thought and written about tastes. What is beautiful is pleasant: Murillo's Immaculate Conception, the Requiem of Mozart, or a nativity scene by Salzillo or Mayo are pleasing to all, even if it is more difficult for some to understand them and thus enjoy them better. And the other way around: what is unpleasant, shabby or provocative is contrary to human dignity; it degrades those who make it and those who see it. A film, a television program or a painting made to displease is an insult to the noblest of human beings. It is what is sought by a society that embraces the incoherence of relativism, that rejects the truth and, therefore, also avoids the beauty that shows us that truth.

Religion class is a privileged environment to teach using beauty. Relying on history and culture with its various artistic manifestations opens the senses to the transcendent and makes it easier to understand what we are trying to explain.

Let us remember some practical resources that can enrich a class and make it more attractive: using art in the classroom, speaking with images make the content feel familiar, close, possible, connected to one's own life (cfr. Evangelii GaudiumPope Francis). Its use is legitimized by Jesus himself, the Master, who used to teach parables, comparisons full of beauty and accessible to those who listened to them.

The teachings of Jesus have not lost their value, because beauty is stable. They serve and attract all those to whom they are proposed: The parable of the prodigal son or that of the Good Samaritan are an extraordinary way of teaching that the Lord used. Also the life of Jesus itself, if it is well explained, attracts, because He is the Truth and the Goodness, and therefore, the supreme Beauty.

In the Religion class, it is very good to use the method that Jesus used and that theologians call "the method that Jesus used". synkatabasis (condescension, abasement), which is to put ourselves at the level of those who listen to us, so that they understand us and make our language accessible. In many cases, an artistic image is worth a thousand words. Then, when they have grasped the message that the artist of that work proposes, we must help our students to elevate themselves, going beyond the canvas or the sculpture before us, to the contemplation of the supreme Beauty, which is always God.

Many examples can help us. In this Year of Mercy it can help us to explain the Good Shepherd logo with its motto "Merciful as the Father."We can also help them understand how much God loves us; or explain the meaning of the Holy Door. We can also rely on the use of such well-known paintings as the Return of the prodigal son of Rembrandt or Murillo.

Fortunately, in painting we have a large number of works of art that can help us in our task as teachers. At the end of the article, I propose some of them as examples.

With young children we can also get them to express themselves artistically by drawing a biblical event that we have explained. For example, I asked my students to draw the resurrection of Lazarus that I had just told them about, and the next day they brought me drawings that could have been used to organize an exhibition.

In sculpture we have the privilege of possessing a great iconography of works on the birth of Jesus (for example, the nativity scenes of Francisco Salzillo), Easter (e.g.: the The Smitten Christ of St. Teresaby Gregorio Fernandez), images of the Virgin Mary (the Immaculate by Alonso Cano), etc.

As far as architecture is concerned, the treasure of basilicas, monasteries and cathedrals, or the nearest parish, is very appropriate to show our students the proposal offered by the subject of Religion.

Music is also a very useful artistic manifestation; both classical music, created to praise the Lord by internationally renowned composers, and the lyrics of the liturgical songs we use in the Sunday Eucharist.

Let us bring here some works that serve as examples: two of Christmas and another on the Death of the Lord.

Shepherds' worship

The shepherds were the first to receive the good news of the birth of the Child God: a choir of angels sings and contemplates Jesus as the shepherds approach to adore him and keep the Holy Family company. St. Joseph, on the left and with open arms, looks in surprise at the Child and meditates on what the shepherds have told: that the angels have communicated to them the birth of the awaited Messiah.

The Virgin Mary gazes gently at Jesus and prays in joyful silence. The shepherds accompany Jesus. One of them, the one kneeling with a little lamb as a gift at his feet, is the painter himself, who wanted to represent himself in this way.

The ox does not want to miss a detail and watches the Son of God closely. A donkey lost in the darkness rests, perhaps after a tiring and difficult journey - remember that Mary was in labor - from Nazareth to Bethlehem to fulfill the census, and now feels unimportant in such a grandiose moment and only its muzzle can be distinguished (on the right, next to the shepherd's blue pants).

One of the angels carries a poster with the first Christmas carol in history: "Glory to God in the heavens and on earth peace to men...". In the midst of the darkness of the night, Jesus is the light of the world that illuminates the darkness of humanity: He brings us peace, now that it is so necessary.

The author did not need to show the scene in a cold stable, as can be seen in the background; rather, he wanted to present the Lord surrounded by a grotto made of love: as the dome or ceiling of this cave of love are the angels singing joyfully, and the walls are the Virgin Mary, her husband St. Joseph and the shepherds themselves, including El Greco, as mentioned above.

The Holy Family of the Little Bird

The scene evokes the daily chores of the Family of Nazareth. The Virgin Mary, Mother of God, is winding a skein of thread (the movement of the spinning wheel is insinuated, as Velázquez did in his famous painting of The Spinners), while St. Joseph, resting for a moment from his work (see his carpenter's tools) teaches Jesus something. Mary and Joseph are watching the Child. In this way the author explains to us the naturalness that was lived in the holy house, between the ordinary work well done and being attentive to make the life of others happy. With this simplicity we have to treat Christ and offer him our work (study) well done. Besides, there is another meaning contained in the painting: Jesus protects the little bird (our soul) from the jaws of the devil (dog, who presents himself with an air of kindness, because the devil always lies, making temptation attractive). If we are with the Lord, we will always be protected.

Let us finish with the picture that Pope Francis likes the most and that he himself has used several times in his catechesis. I am sure that those of you who teach in the last years of ESO or in Bachillerato will like it, to apply it in a class on Church history.

White crucifixion

We witness with pain the sacrifice of Christ, who died on the cross to redeem man. Everything is enveloped in darkness (in cold tones: gray) that represent the sufferings and anguish of the human being: the hatred of some for others, the wars and all the pain of man. The world is illuminated by a ray of light that comes from heaven and shows us Christ as our savior.

On the right is seen how the Jews are persecuted by Nazism and their synagogue is burned (signifying hatred of religion). In the synagogue, above the door, the Tablets of the Law, the Star of David and the lion of Judah can be seen in clear allusion to the Jews.

sion to the messianic prophecies. Objects fall to the ground, among which the Torah (Jewish bible) rolls. Some Jews flee with what they can (one carries other books or scrolls of the bible; a woman with her son on her lap...).

On the left, the Russian revolution destroying houses (a clear allusion to the fight against private property) and its hatred of religion. Flags and soldiers, burned houses and wounded are distinguished.

It is the horror of war: everything human represented in the "sea of the human", where we see Peter's boat (the Church), which does not sink, because Christ is in it, as in the miracle of the calm storm: Jesus slept while the apostles, terrified, realized that they could do nothing to save their lives. Then they turned to the Lord and begged him: "Lord, that we perish!"And Christ rebuked the wind and the sea and a great calm ensued. In the midst of the difficulties that the Church has had historically (Roman Empire, barbarians, etc., in Antiquity; and more currently with the Enlightenment, Marxist revolutions, etc.), Jesus has always been in the boat of the Church. If it seems that now it is sinking, we only have to pray to him and Jesus will act.

There is a ladder next to the Cross. It is the one used by Joseph of Arimathea to take Christ down and bury him. But that ladder has a much deeper meaning: it is our faith, man's response to God's call and salvation. We must climb and embrace the Cross to attain happiness.

Jesus is the Messiah awaited by the Jews: the candlestick was a figure of God's presence among his chosen people; that candlestick is at the foot of the Cross.

Finally, God the Father is seen in heaven calling to beatitude and happiness with Him those who have suffered death in these wars, provided they accept the salvation offered by Christ.

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