The Art of Christian Reflection

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Heidi J. Hornik
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , October
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Heidi J. Hornik’s The Art of Christian Reflection is an invitation to allow art to shape one’s spiritual development. As a Christian and an art historian, Hornik is concerned with Christian discipleship and how studying works of art can bolster the traits and characteristics of mature disciples. Through the interweaving of visual analysis, scripture, and historical context, Hornik draws her audience into the narratives surrounding works of art and connects them to elements of Christian discipleship. The resulting effect is that the reader feels pulled into a form of embodied discipleship that is not meant to be merely absorbed but to be engaged in as an active participant.

In the book’s foreword, Robert Kruschwitz provides a hermeneutical lens that readers should use in working through the portrait of discipleship that Hornik creates from analyzing a broad range of artwork. Kruschwitz suggests that in approaching visual artwork narratively, Hornik is unearthing the “thick moral concepts” behind an artist’s work that transfer to the audience, for when presented with a story, “We attempt to discern not merely what the characters in the story are doing or suffering, but what their actions and suffering means to them and for us” (xxiv). Hornik generally leaves readers to form their own conclusions from the narratives she has drawn around the intersection of discipleship and art, and thus readers should be prepared to employ Kruschwitz’s lens and look for the “thick moral concepts” in Hornik’s work to embrace and adapt for themselves.

Divided into three parts, the first section of book suggests six habits and virtues that can guide a Christian toward becoming a mature disciple: forgiveness, friendship, vocation, worship, patience, and generosity. Hornik considers each of these habits and virtues through pertinent scriptures and pieces of art. In her discussion of vocation, for example, Hornik takes the reader into the world of the Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio and the circumstances that led him to paint his Calling of St. Matthew, which Hornik compares to the gospel accounts of Matthew’s call. By analyzing the temptations both Matthew and Caravaggio faced and the painting borne from their mutual struggle, Hornik concludes that “Matthew and Caravaggio help us reflect upon our personal vocation” and to recognize that, “Like [Matthew and Caravaggio], we are sinners with a divine call and gifts to serve one another” (15). This division of the book into three parts enables the reader to first reflect upon character development as the foundation of Christian discipleship and then consider how this foundation informs the ethical concerns and spiritual practices that are addressed in the remaining chapters.   

The second (and largest) portion of the book is Hornik’s exploration of the richer and more nuanced understanding works of art can bring to the “moral issues” contemporary Christians face. This section functions much like an encyclopedia as Hornik addresses the moral issues individually, organizing them into four categories: relational, environmental, health and science, and global/economic concerns. Some of the issues Hornik highlights, such as “Women in the Church” or “Suffering,” are commonly discussed across Christian circles, while other issues like “Virtual Lives” or “Aging” would benefit from wider consideration from Christians, and Hornik’s artistic analysis of such issues may offer effective starting points for conversation.

For each of these moral issues, Hornik begins not with the works of art but with the issue itself and then discusses selected works that inform and complicate the issue. Rather than offering her readers directives concerning the moral issues, Hornik’s personal opinions seem largely represented through her selection of artwork for each issue. Consider Hornik’s treatment of immigration. To discuss this issue, Hornik has chosen to examine the imagery and architecture of two churches that were founded by immigrants: Saints Cyril and Methodius Church in Shiner, Texas, and the Church of San Apollinaire in Classe, Italy. Hornik avoids political and ethical commentary surrounding immigration by focusing on the historical context, motivation, and artistic vision of the immigrant groups who created these churches, and she applauds their ability to “create a lasting legacy in architecture and painting—because they were imaginative and bold in appropriating their ethnic heritage while faithfully interpreting the larger Christian tradition” (112). By confining her commentary to the context from which the individual works of art emerged, Hornik is in effect challenging readers to apply the “thick moral concepts” arising from the artwork to their own spiritual lives, acknowledging that, “Each interpretation will be a personal narrative that is more indicative of the moment and the emotional life of the viewer than of the artist and his painted figures” (p. 44).

In the book’s final section, Hornik turns to the “formative practices” that are intended to develop the habits and virtues set forth in the first section. The organization of this section mimics the others, with each practice examined individually through selected works of art, from examining prayer through Pietro Perugino’s Marriage of the Virgin to considering mysticism with Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa. The implication is that by viewing practices like prayer, observing the Sabbath, and reading scripture through the eyes of various artists, Hornik’s readers will be inspired to either take up or refresh their understanding of these formative practices in the hope of becoming more mature disciples.

While this book is not designed as a theological or ethical text, it might serve as an effective complement to larger theological conversations on Christian ethics or general revelation and the creational gifts God has bestowed upon humanity. Regardless of background in art history or visual analysis, Hornik successfully inspires in all readers a deeper appreciation for the participatory reflection that art affords those seeking spiritual development.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Holland Prior is a doctoral student in Rhetoric, Writing, and Linguistics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Date of Review: 
March 4, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Heidi J. Hornik is Professor of Art History at Baylor University.


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