"Ecce Homo" by Domenico Feti

As the civil universe seems to wither away like wet popcorn, an honest artist may ask himself something like, “Does my art meet deep human needs, will it actually change anything?” or, “Does mankind need volumetric, holographic projections of a flying piano on the New York Stock exchange?”

Or something to that effect.

Art may never be reduced to scientific quotients, but that doesn’t mean music or dance won’t help cure cancer in the future. Valuable because of its latent potency and power to surprise, enlighten and disarm, art is almost impossible to truly define or contain. Because of this, it easily lends itself to the realm of the transcendent and spiritual, and history is full of fascinating tales … like this one:

While taking a grand European tour (de rigueur for young noblemen in 1719), Count Nicolas Ludwig Zinzendorf came across a painting in Dusseldorf. There were thousands, but this one by Domenico Feti struck him forcibly, stopping him in his tracks and changing his life forever.

“Ecce Homo” (“Behold the Man”) presented a very human and tender Christ crowned with thorns.

Across the bottom of the canvas floated the question, “This I have suffered for you. Now what will you do for Me?”

Struck by the question and the plaintive expression of Christ, Zinzendorf stood frozen by the painting in a sort of daze. It seemed to single him out personally. Already a pious Lutheran, Feti’s challenge continued to haunt him long after. He soon vowed to serve Christ and began a life of extraordinary service to the church and society. Zinzendorf was one of the first to campaign for humane treatment of slaves and to honor aboriginal people.

All this came about because of a painting?

Probably not, but in this case art was the catalyst – in the right place and in this perfect, impressionable moment of time.

Act Two: Frances Ridley Havergal travels to Dusseldorf to cultivate her knowledge of the arts in 1852. The young woman observes a print of Feti’s painting, “Ecce Homo,” in a pastor’s study and is also moved by the scene. Christ is mocked, torn and demeaned while the artist asks each generation of viewers, “This I have done for you. Now what will you do for Me?”

Havegal remembered the painting after returning to England, and she began to elaborate on Feti’s simple request. Five stanzas later she had a poem. Havergal eventually became a celebrated writer of hymns, but her most famous, “Take My Life,” was inspired by that moment in a Dusseldorf study.

Contemporary artist Devi Anne Moore marks the equally deep impact on her life of three works separated across 1300 years: Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, the Beautus Manuscripts and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

Radically affected by the 8th century Beatus Manuscripts, Moore finds their urgent tone oddly resonant. In reaction to the Islamic invasion of Spain and the oppression of Christians, Spanish monks were convinced the Apocalypse had arrived. Their beautiful books consoled the flock and kept doctrine, using illustration and text. Moore’s own apocalyptic art and worldview tilted years ago when she discovered “a powerhouse religion that would try to take over the world” through the writings and art of Beatus of Liebana.

Suffering is a central component of the grand Isenheim Altarpiece, finished in 1516. Considered Grunewald’s greatest work, it depicts a physically devastated Savior. His Christ visually bears mankind’s diseases with ghastly, weeping sores and symbolic thorns piercing his contorted flesh at random. A series of multi-layered sculpture and paintings, two sets of enclosed wings open and shut like a gold-edged cherubim.

The Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald

Moore describes her first reactions to this magnificent, complex work and echoes Zinzendorf, who may have encountered the altarpiece himself: “Never did I see the effect of what God did to send His own Son until I saw this deep piece that showed an inner truth, rather than a perfect painting.”

As a not particularly religious child, I was still irresistibly drawn to the paintings of the Spaniard El Greco. Crummy little reproductions were tacked across my bedroom walls with such unlikely themes as “Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple.” I can’t say it led to my immediate repentance and conversion – that was a slow process – but I saw something in them utterly foreign to my understanding at the time, yet unbearably winsome.

El Greco animated stones and solidified fire and vapor – all creation was in a mad flux, and states of matter unimportant. I somehow knew this was significant, although it would be years before I could say why.

"Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple," El Greco

Secular art can carry viewers into contemplation of the spiritual as well, even if the effects are unintentional.

West Coast sculptor Karen Madsen describes her reaction to a vividly remembered 1999 Robert Irwin installation, “Excursus: Homage to the Square,” in New York: “I was the only one there, and the sun was low and warm. The way one moved through the space set a tone of subtle beauty and calm. It was like walking into a medieval church or seeing the Grand Canyon the first time.”

An audience packs their worldview and theology along with every museum visit, and it factors into everything they see and hear. This is a passive or reactive means of employing art as a spiritual force, hoping the viewer will find a message the artist has implied or deposited.

Dominco Feti was openly evangelistic and asserted in “Ecce Homo” a sort of union between fine art and 17th century gospel tract. He produced numerous versions of the piece, which hang in galleries such as the Bayerische Staatsmuseum in Munich. I wonder if visitors still ponder at the old Latin or the greater spiritual meaning of the crucifixion itself?

Ego pro te haec passus sum
Tu vero quid fecisti pro me

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.