Beyond Appearances: Art as a Location for Spiritual Encounter
John Franklin

There has been a long history of engagement with the arts as a resource for shaping spiritual life as well as a means of expressing spiritual sensibilities. In this paper I will look at several themes that are common between art and spirituality. I will also consider how the imagination is essential not only for the making of art, but for the understanding of the bible and the shaping of moral and spiritual life. The practice of the faith community has tended to rest on rational and conceptual resources to the neglect of aesthetic and affective aspects of our humanity.

The paper will explore the dialogue between art and the spiritual through a discussion of the Mystical Landscapes exhibition that was at the Art Gallery of Ontario from October 2016 – February 2017. Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis, Charles –Marie Dulac, Van Gogh, August Strindberg, Monet, Lawren Harris and Emily Carr were among the artists included in this exhibition. Taken collectively these artists could be seen as a “resistance movement” pushing against their disenchanted world of their time where culture was dominated by industrial, economic and materialistic values. They sought a recovery of the transcendent. Spirituality may take two forms, light (cataphatic) and darkness (apophatic) and both find expression in the Mystical Landscapes exhibition.

The paper will also touch on whether beauty is an asset or liability in matters of art and spirituality and will consider briefly the connections between morality and art for the process of spiritual transformation. In addition to visual arts, other art forms will be referenced for how they may contribute to spiritual life.

These are threads that will be woven together to demonstrate the convergence of art, aesthetic sensibility and meaningful spiritual experience.


John Franklin is Executive Director of IMAGO a national initiative in support of Christians in the arts in Canada. Before joining IMAGO in 1998 he taught philosophy at Tyndale College. He is an adjunct professor at Tyndale Seminary and at Trinity College – Divinity – Toronto School of Theology. His special interest is theology and the arts. He served for four years as one of several consultants for the Mystical Landscapes exhibition—October 2016 – February 2017 at the Art Gallery of Ontario—featuring paintings from 1885–1935. Since 2008 he has been a member of the Task Force on Arts in Mission for the Mission Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance.