A reflection on the transformative power of art

By Gabriel Sanchez-Ortega, Staff Writer

On the night of December 2nd, 1577, Saint John of the Cross was captured by members of the order of the Carmelites. In the darkness of the cell where he had been imprisoned, tortured, and left for dead, his only comfort was to stand on a bench to read his bible from the light of his barred window.  

In such circumstances, was it his faith that prevented him from giving in to despair? Night after night, when the guards would retire to sleep, he would attempt to pry open the hinges of his cell door—until, miraculously, though not without strenuous effort, the door fell off its hinges, and he was freed. 

I first encountered the name Saint John of the Cross curiously in Allen Ginsberg’s poem, Howl. Later, in a class on ‘Mysticism and the Spiritual Experience’, I learned the story of this 16th century Spanish mystic. What fascinated me most about this interesting figure was the correlation that existed between his excruciating ordeal and his spiritual awakening. 

For Saint John, spiritual transformation was not possible without suffering. This trial—which served as the inspiration for his spiritual treatise, Ascent at Mount Carmel—begins with a poem, The Dark Night of the Soul. In the poem, the moment of spiritual crisis symbolised by the night represents the first step towards a union with God.

‘O, guiding night;

O, night more lovely than the dawn;

O, night that hast united 

The lover with His Beloved,

And changed her into her love.’

— St. John of the Cross, excerpt from The Dark Night of the Soul

Poetry may seem like a curious vehicle to express the struggles of the human soul, but this poetic union between opposites is perhaps as essential to art as it is to religion. It is my belief that beauty—that most sublime beauty in art, which is perhaps not so different from a feeling of spiritual union—arises from reconciliation between tragedy and joy. 

This union described in the ‘Dark Night’ is reminiscent of another poem written by the 18th century German poet Novalis. In his Hymns to the Night, Novalis writes of his grief in wake of his fiancée’s death. But whereas a lesser poet would have found only gloom and despair, Novalis finds in the symbol of the night, a source of unfathomable beauty and a boon of consolation. 

‘What springs up all at once so sweetly boding in my heart, and stills the soft air of sadness? Dost thou also take a pleasure in us, dark Night? What holdest thou under thy mantle, that with hidden power affects my soul? Precious balm drips from thy hand out of its bundle of poppies. Thou upliftest the heavy-laden wings of the soul.’

— Novalis, excerpt from Hymns to the Night, I

With both poets, through their reconciliation, darkness becomes the canvas on which light can paint its most vivid colours. And it is there that I believe resides what one might call the essence of art. 

Before discussing this need for reconciliation to be expressed through art and religion, one more example encompasses this idea while also acting as a symbol for the role of the artist. 

The painting I have chosen as the centrepiece for this article is The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio. In the biblical story, Thomas had missed Christ’s apparition after the resurrection. When the disciples came to tell him the good news, he spoke the following words: 

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” – John 20:25

Caravaggio does not make Christ the focus of his painting. Instead, the painting is centred on Thomas’s expression—his eyes wide open, the deep wrinkles on his forehead. Christ takes hold of Thomas’s wrist, guiding his finger into his wound as the disciples look on. In that moment, Thomas understands the suffering of the flesh and believes in the resurrection. This is the role of the artist: to turn the nonbeliever, to guide the finger into the wound, all that which is humanity’s wound, longing to be known, to be felt, and to be healed. 

If one were to ask, ‘What is the greatest, or most beneficial thing, that art can do for people?’, I would venture an answer inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy

In the Divine Comedy, Dante describes his travels through hell, purgatory, and paradise. But while the souls in hell suffer endlessly, the souls in purgatory have hope that through their suffering, they will one day reach paradise. Thus, if one believes that their suffering is meaningless, they cannot hope to overcome their struggles. It is my belief that the gift of hope is the greatest thing art can give to people through its reconciliation of suffering and happiness. 

Though it may not always be possible to find reconciliation in life, it may be found in art.