Epiphanic Paintings: A Universal Subjective Relationality
This reflection considers how great paintings typically classified as secular and abstract can spark insights into deeper realities which religion often calls epiphany. What can a painting reveal to its viewer beyond its subject matter, and what hidden meanings can be discerned beyond pictorial content and style? Within the category of non-figural pictorial art lies an ever-new revelatory experience. In fact, it will be seen how pictorial masterworks which contain no figural imagery or religious content remain significantly valuable to religion and society by virtue of their epiphanic quality.
What is meant by pictorial content is that which the painting contains, the details on the canvas or inside the frame, the image, shapes, colours, lines, and objects depicted etc. The painting’s subject matter is its overall theme or central idea. The form is the painting’s meaning made visible through the shapes, colours, lines, and texture etc., and the style is the painting’s categorization as either religious or secular, figural or non-figural.
Regarding the word “epiphany,” this term is often used in ordinary speech to denote a moment of great revelation. It derives from the Greek verb phainein meaning “to reveal” or “to bring to light.” In The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia the term epiphany is described as “the sudden realization or comprehension of the (larger) essence or meaning of something.” An example in Christianity is the infant Messiah revealed to the Gentiles (Matt 2:1–12). Christians hold this event to be a revelation of God’s self, perhaps the most evocative and life-changing revelation of the deity in Christian history. Numerous artists have treated this theme for the pictorial content of their paintings, titling their works after that momentous event associated with the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. That moment is held to have been one of great revelation to all nations that Jesus would be their saviour. This biblical story is therefore commonly called “The Epiphany.” The Magi believed that the Christ-child was the Messiah and they bore gifts for him. The star was a sign for all of this “showing” or “revealing” of messiahship.
However, it was not the physical seeing of the child which was the epiphany, though that is how artists tend to depict the epiphany, portraying the Magi looking at the infant Messiah in astonishment and presenting to him their gifts. Even theologians sometimes emphasise the same physical seeing as the epiphany. However, this viewpoint is theologically limited and even inaccurate insofar as few people would have physically seen the new born baby Jesus. Luke reports that only some shepherds were witnesses to the physical appearance (Luke 2:8). Yet many came to understand the revelation, the comprehension of the larger meaning of “God with us.” (Matt 1:23)
Rather than the physical seeing of the Christ child, the real epiphany was the revelation of knowledge that this particular child was to be the Messiah and saviour of the world. That “bringing to light” was what the Magi wanted to seal through seeing the baby Jesus. The seeing of the child was only the outward sign of the inner knowledge already revealed to them. The revelation of interior knowledge was the true epiphany now fulfilled in the physical seeing, a coordination between intellectual and physical seeing, that is, seeing with the mind and seeing with the eyes. The knowledge may not have been logically defined or grasped, though with it came disclosure, insight, and intellectual and spiritual pleasure, thus, epiphany. This kind of experience may also be true of great art, though typically, through genres such as pure abstract art, the non-figural kind with meanings that are not immediately apparent.
Art is revelatory; “epiphanies of beauty” to use the expression of Pope John Paul II. A number of great philosophers, Aristotle, Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel, and Heidegger endowed great art with a revelatory significance. If pictorial art is revelatory, then conversely, every experience of a painting could be a revelation. In this sense, pictorial art may be called “epiphanic.” This is particularly true of non-figural paintings which tend to hide their subject matter. Though, how does an artist depict a mental seeing, an intellectual and emotional insight, or a faith conviction? And how does the artist reveal to the interior senses of viewers something about truth, such as the purpose behind the Magi’s visit?
The epiphanic feature of a painting can be considered by comparing pictorial content and style in so-called “religious” and “non-religious” paintings to identify where and how epiphany can occur. The revelatory aspect of pictorial art is mediated through formal properties such as line, shape, perspective, tone, texture, and pattern etc., adhering in the artwork by which something that might otherwise have remained hidden is disclosed to the viewer. Brian Braman, in his essay Epiphany and Authenticity, claimed that the painting’s epiphanic quality lies in the artwork’s interiority. Comparing the epiphanic aesthetic vision of Romantics and Moderns, Braman asserted that modern art “shifts the locus of epiphany from something to which the work of art ultimately points, to the interior of the work itself.” However, this directionality is not epiphany. What we are talking about here is a fundamentally inherent pictorial quality which reveals a reality shining through the pictorial content, a reality not directed towards the interior of the artwork but outwards towards an understanding of something signified beyond the painting. In other words, the epiphanic character is not an interiority but an outward relationality. It is a quality based on an intrinsic meaning made visible which inextricably has the capacity to reveal something significant which is hidden. Contrary to what Braman says, this significance can be separated from the artwork itself. In that very separation lies the epiphany.
In other words, like “The Epiphany” to the Magi, what is revealed always lies beyond what is physically manifested in the painting’s content. This may seem odd at first, though beyond the pictorial content lies another level of meaning not visible to the naked eye, nevertheless, perceptible to the viewer’s internal senses. This meaning penetrates the surface of the artwork, allowing its content to “go beyond what the senses perceive and, reach beneath reality’s surface, striving to interpret its hidden mystery.” In this sense, through the artwork another “seeing” is generated, a kind of spiritual and relational seeing called “epiphany.”
Art historians use the term epiphany as well as theologians because in art as in speaking about God something always remains hidden or indescribable. There is in both practices a simultaneous revealing and a hiddenness. Perhaps this is why Kandinsky held pictorial art to be the most spiritual of all visual arts.
Turning to pictorial art-types, in painting, the term “epiphany” can be used for both religious and non-religious art-types to signify an “unveiling” through the revelation of a kind of subsistent beauty. This is why John Paul II called art “epiphanies of beauty” and the German poet and painter Hermann Hess claimed that “every painting is a revelation.” There is something in the artwork which attracts upon being seen. It forces a stopping and staring. In this sense, the painting may be called epiphanic in style, a characteristic effectively narrowing the distance between secular and religious or sacred paintings.
Factors that both theologians and aestheticians examine to distinguish between religious and non-religious art-types are typically pictorial content and pictorial style. Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, from his existentialist vantage point, identified four art-types in a nexus of relationships between religion and art: 1) non-religious content and non-religious style; 2) non-religious content and religious style; 3) religious content and non-religious style; and 4) religious content and religious style. Similarly, American philosopher Paul Weiss related art to religion in his Aquinas Lecture Religion and Art, and identified four artistic products: 1) secular artworks with secular subject matter; 2) religious artworks with secular subject matter; 3) secular artworks with religious subject matter; and 4) religious artworks with religious subject matter. These distinctions situate religious and non-religious paintings in a schemata based on pictorial content and style, producing two religious art-types and two non-religious art-types. However, when it comes to epiphany in art, these distinctions become blurred. Art-types of religious style and non-religious content can be devoid of holy scenes or religious subject matter. Yet they can be considered religious insofar as their pictorial form reveals “ultimate concern,” something fundamentally spiritual breaking through from the meaning behind the surface. In those cases, the art style is said to be religious and the art-product fits into that category which Weiss calls a religious artwork with non-religious content. Examples are masterworks of the pristinely stripped-down and non-prescriptive art of abstract expressionism which urges a religious style without religious content. Other examples are surrealism, some cubist and futurist masterpieces, and Rothko’s pioneering monochromes which are illustrative of epiphany. Many contemporary paintings as well which are not formal expressions of aesthetic beauty per se, but rather expressions of truth, or, as Tillich would say, ultimate reality, exhibit the epiphanic qualities. Epiphanic artworks reveal something much greater than their subject matter, something about the world, nature, ideas, ultimate being, and perhaps even the divine logos. This may be why some remain intentionally unnamed. What do you call an epiphany if not epiphany?
Many epiphanic paintings do have a title such as Katrina Borneman’s Bliss, Eternal Union, Harmonic Symphony and Liberation (2010), and Su Nimon’s Oneness (2012), which pictorially revisits the original idea of unity in the divine mind. Nimon wrote, “This endless gathering of colours in motion serves to remind me that I am but a part of a wondrous whole. We are all different, yet the same, whirling together through life.” Likewise, the colour fields of Morris Louis and Gerhard Richter reflect the unity implicit in the universe’s diversity. These artworks inform of the non-visible attributes that theologians use to discuss theological ideas. Their aesthetic style can be deeply religious without containing traditional religious elements.
These paintings reveal deeper spiritual meaning than traditional figural representations. The epiphany comes through the content as the imagination ignites something much greater than what is seen. According to Tillich, such existentialist paintings bring the elements of reality into a new context. They depict the infinite space into which we look, the balance and harmony we experience in creation, or the archetypal forms that underlie both physical and mental reality. We can say that their ultimate truth is the bringing forth of ultimate reality or Being. These artworks are the carriers of epiphany, although they have no religious content. They give meaning to our world by helping us understand more extraordinary things. They are subjectively and universally epiphanic.
Instead, paintings which contain religious content may not necessarily be religious in style. In fact, a painting with religious content could be designated non-religious. Tillich cited Raphael’s “Alba Madonna” (1510) which he claimed to not be religious in either substance or style.
According to Tillich, an artwork’s religiosity depends not on content but on style. Weiss described this religiosity as “making visible an existent space which has been affected by God.” In fact, Tillich posited that some paintings of Jesus expressed nothing about God or ultimate reality. He cited “Christ and the Rich Young Ruler” at Riverside Church in New York (1889). Similarly, Weiss noted that portraying religious objects or events “does not suffice to take the painting out of the class of secular works.” Even when a religious scene or biblical event is beautifully portrayed, as in Matthew 2’s story regarding the Magi visiting the infant Messiah, such content alone is insufficient to make the painting epiphanic. Weiss says that a religious painting “must embody and point to God as involved with space, and thus as making a difference to it, in whole or part,” this it can do independently of religious content.
In art history, what typically denotes “epiphany” in pictorial content is subject matter involving events around that cosmic sign of God’s revelation to the Magi, such as the Bethlehem star, a new-born saviour, and nativity scenes, etc. However, in theology or more specifically in that subbranch of theology called theological aesthetics, such artworks are not always considered religious. Yet other artworks which contain non-religious content may be categorised as religious and be of more significant theological interest, for example, masterworks by Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, and Kazimir Malevich which exhibit elements symbolising the divine attributes. Malevich’s White on White, Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting No. 34 (“black on black”), and Rothko’s Black on Maroon can be called “epiphanies” in the broad sense of the term, and in a radical way, by revealing something of the invisible and impenetrable deity. Newman describes this art-type as quasi-religious epiphanies, pictorial revelations of the non-describable and non-representable. Such artworks are sometimes called apophatic pictorial statements. They reveal qualities not seen by the physical eye though sensed through the mind’s eye; qualities such as infinitude, transcendence, unity, and oneness. Malevich’s White on White may be experienced as “the very embodiment of an endlessly malleable light” to use the words of Weiss, representative of that “brilliant ray of illumination” which Hindu philosopher and painter Īsā Nūr al-Dīn traced back to the Divine Oneness as “basis of all religions.” There is no religious content, though the artistic style reveals reality’s inner meaning intuited through other means.
The Vast, The All-Embracing, and The Omnipresent are intelligible in Barnett Newman’s Onement I (1948). Art historian, Pamela Schaeffer, talks about how Newman’s “sombre, borderless canvases suggest deep silence and infinite void” yet somehow they also “evoke a sense of presence and mystery.” Yves Klein’s solid images like IKB 191 (1962) and Brice Marden’s The Dylan Painting (1966), and Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting No. 34, black on black (1963) capture every religion’s spiritual teaching on stillness, that notion of eternity and prototype of order and balance in the universe. This is also intelligible in Newman’s Onement VI (1953). Marcia Freedman’s He Said, She Said (2013), depicts the flowing of one colour into another while each colour remains distinct in a reversal of foregrounds and backgrounds, conveying a sense of the principle of harmony of contrast and unity in diversity.
Regarding artworks created by artists who purposefully avoided religious content – for these paintings to be religious their pictorial style is expected to reveal a sense of some kind of transcendent presence, a sensible sign by which something of the divine is perceptible. The artwork itself does not reveal God insofar as a “theophany” in art could not occur unless a divine manifestation took place through the artwork. A spiritual experience through an artwork differs from a theophany insofar as the artwork is the means to reveal, and not “the revealed.” Yet viewing the artwork may be an epiphany insofar as what is revealed alerts the viewer to an inner beauty behind the content, an expression that makes accessible and attractive what would otherwise remain hidden. Perhaps this is what George Steiner’s meant when he stated that art conduces a “real presence,” manifesting something deeper than its form, colours, shapes and lines.
The criterion for an artwork’s designation as epiphanic is therefore art-style. This can produce an epiphany in cases where the artwork reveals aspects of reality without using religious content. The sacred is no longer depicted through idealistic figurative forms. Portraying religious events which usually involves a culturally situated realism may not constitute an epiphany. This is why some paintings of “The Epiphany” can be seen in private collections and designated as non-religious, while masterworks by Rothko, Malevich, and Newman are displayed in chapels and considered sacred “epiphanies of beauty”.
The Western aesthetic tradition recognises the value of these non-religious artworks. Though often they sit outside the category of religious. Ironically, according to the ideas of Tillich and Weiss, they may actually be religious. John Paul II surely would have agreed insofar as he recognised that “every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of humankind and of the world. It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning.” This recognition undoubtedly stems from the Church’s incarnational worldview by which epiphanic artworks originate in the same rationale behind that “prime epiphany of ‘God who is Mystery’.” They are born out of a purposefulness that not only shows what might otherwise remain hidden, but also relates and transforms like the Incarnation, opening to the beauty of a world beyond the external senses.
Epiphanies in art, therefore, involve more than the depiction of the infant Messiah or a manifestation of Jesus’s divine power. This Tillichian perspective, shared by Weiss and John Paul II, unfolds the difference between Matthew 2’s narrative as religious content for art, and art as a religious style that is epiphany.
This reflection was intended to show how some pictorial artworks typically classified as secular can also be considered as religious through a revelatory aspect abiding in the pictorial form. Within the category of non-figural pictorial art lies an ever-new revelatory experience. In fact, the most epiphanic artworks are the ones devoid of religious content, though they remain, in effect, of significant value to religion and society. By manifesting what might otherwise remain invisible, non-religious pictorial content in abstract art can be revelatory epiphanies of beauty, connecting the viewer with something that not only desires to be known, but also wants to address humanity.
Christopher Longhurst has lectured at Te Pūtahi Katorika ki Aotearoa (The Catholic Institute of Aotearoa New Zealand). His academic specialty is the interdisciplinary study of theology and aesthetics. He has taught at Victoria University of Wellington, Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, and Marymount International Institute, Rome, Italy. Chris has also worked as an operatore didattico (educational officer) at the Vatican Museums, Rome. On the 1st January, 2020 he is the incoming Ordinary Professor of Theology, which is part of the new organisation Te Kupenga - Catholic Leadership Institute.
 Geerinck,Jan-Willem, Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia, <http://www.artandpopularculture.com/Epiphany_%28feeling%29>.
 John Paull II, Letter to Artists (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1999).
 Brian Braman, “Epiphany and Authenticity: The Aesthetic Vision of Charles Taylor,” in Beauty, Art, and the Polis, ed. Alice Ramos (Washington D.C.: American Maritain Association, 2000), 233.
 Brian Braman, “Epiphany and Authenticity,” 233.
 See Brian Braman, “Epiphany and Authenticity,” 233-235.
 John Paul II, Letter to Artists, n. 6.
 Cf. Moshe Barasch, Theories of Art 2 (New York: Routledge, 2000), 196.
 John Paul II, Letter to Artists.
 Hermann Hess, The Seasons of the Soul: The Poetic Guidance and Spiritual Wisdom of Herman (Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2011), 29.
 Paul Tillich, Christianity and the Existentialists, ed. Carl Michalson (New York: Scribner, 1956), 128–146.
 Paul Weiss, Religion and Art (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1964), 39.
 See Paul Tillich, “Existentialist Aspects of Modern Art,” Christianity and the Existentialists, ed. Carl Michalson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956), 128-146. See also, Christopher Longhurst, “Discovering the Sacred in Secular Art – An Aesthetic Modality that Speaks of God,” American Theological Inquiry: A Biannual Journal of Theology, Culture & History 4, 1, Minneapolis, USA (15 January 2011): 13–21.
 The Rothko Chapel is a non-denominational chapel in Houston, Texas, which houses fourteen black colour-hued paintings by Mark Rothko.
 Oneness by Su Nimon, online: http://fineartamerica.com/products/oneness-su-nimon.html.
 Anne Kull, “How to Ask Questions About Art and Theology?” Baltic Journal of Art History, vol 7 (2014): 73.
 Weiss, Religion and Art, 59.
 Anne Kull “How to Ask Questions About Art and Theology?” 69.
 Weiss, Religion and Art, 58.
 Weiss, Religion and Art, 58.
 See Christopher Longhurst, Dire Dio nell’arte: riflessioni teologiche sulla pittura contemporánea (Rome: Nonsolocopie, 2009).
 See Michael Kimmelman,“Epiphany in a Vibrant Universe Depicting Nothing but Itself.” New York Times Art Review, April 12, 2002. https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/12/arts/art-review-epiphany-in-a-vibrant-universe-depicting-nothing-but-itself.html.
 See Christopher Longhurst, “Approaching the Divine through Form and Colour: A theological reflection on the pictorial apophasis of Malevič and Reinhardt,” American Theological Inquiry: A Biannual Journal of Theology, Culture & History 5, 2, Minneapolis, USA (15 July 2012): 67-82. See also, William Lyon, “Ad Reinhardt, Theology, and ‘Apophatic’ Art,” The Brooklyn Rail. https://brooklynrail.org/special/AD_REINHARDT/ad-and-spirituality/ad-reinhardt-theology-and-apophatic-art.
 Weiss, Religion and Art, 59-60.
 Cf. Frithjof Schuon, The Transcendent Unity of Religions (Wheaton, IL:: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1984), back cover.
 Pamela Schaeffer, “Spirituality in Abstract Art,” Christian Century (September 30, 1987): 819.
 See George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
 John Paul II, Letter to Artists, n. 6.
 Cf. John Paul II, Letter to Artists, n. 5.