How Spiritual Art Helps People Cope During the Crisis
The world is in need of remedies.
Arash Javanbakht, a trauma specialist and professor of psychiatry, said that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected “all aspects of life.” While the pandemic itself remains the world’s top concern, it’s brought about repercussions in other areas of society. Businesses collapsed and millions lost their jobs. Quarantines triggered emotional lows even further by cultivating a sense of isolation.
Even mental health doctors are struggling with the demand, not to mention their own feelings of helplessness.
“Every single person I see needs therapy right now,” Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist and educator, told the New York Times. Colleen Cummings, licensed psychologist, also shared her struggles in an article from the USA Today: “I’m going through the same things that they’re going through.”
When it comes to matters of mental health, science and health systems can fall short. They’re necessary, of course, but these fields are run by people, too — people who deal with similar kinds of difficulties.
At a time where there seems to be little to no relief in the outside world, people start to seek leverage elsewhere. Some have turned back to spiritual, meditative practices, as well as entertainment like art, literature, and other forms of media. These don't “heal” them — not by a long mile — but they do help them make sense of a tumultuous world.
Religiosity and Art as Forms of Refuge
In 2020, the American Psychological Association (APA) published an article about people’s relationship with faith and spirituality during the crisis. Doctors and researchers have agreed that religious belief can be a healthy coping mechanism for some people (as long as prayer is balanced with pragmatism).
“Religion has been helping people get through hard times for thousands of years,” said Thomas Plante, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Santa Clara University. “Just read the psalms and you will see that it is all about people turning to God during troubled times.”
Themes of spirituality also began to re-emerge in works of art, even in public spaces. Artists have used graffiti to contextualize religiosity amid the period of pandemic distress. “Love is the cure, greed is the virus,” a wall in Amsterdam reads.
Another striking piece was one from Ernesto Muñiz who painted a rendition of The Virgin Crown in the streets of Madrid. Instead of the traditional Marian portrait, a melancholic Mary is depicted with a mask, the Immaculate Heart was replaced by a virus, and the Crown of Stars was replaced by the earth.
Despite its poignance, it stands as a message of hope: that Mary carries the weight of the world’s suffering, that her heart mourns for it, and that she serves as a reminder of faith and resilience.
Muñiz, a prizewinning Mexican artist, said that he tried his hand in collage art as a “more personal” form of expression during the crisis. When galleries closed down, Muñiz displayed his work on the streets as graffiti art, calling them his “guerilla shrines.” All of these — like the rest of his work — feature overtly religious imagery.
And he’s not the only one who tries to seek new ways of self-expression amid the pandemic. Others in the field — even writers, musicians, stage actors — are keeping in touch with their artistic selves by holding on to their spirituality.
“My artistic practice is all about other people,” artist-facilitator Tatiana Chaturji wrote for the YBCA zine. “With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, I felt anger at having to abandon these modes of being with others. I feel that my artist-self has gone into hiding.”
But Chaturji keeps going by looking for new ways to share her mode of art: converting to the digital space and conducting virtual workshops. “Hope is a slippery thing, but if art can magnetize us towards it, siphoning off the sorrow and despondence of these days, I’m there,” she said.
From the “Dark” to the “Golden Age”
This is hardly the first time the world has gone through a sense of stagnancy. Putting life in perspective now requires us to recall human struggles — and victories — throughout history.
The Middle Ages, for instance, were characteristic of some of history’s most notorious upheavals. People suffered from plagues, poverty, famine, and severe inequality. During a time of loss and despair, religion was the foundation of society; indoctrination was the basis for governance. People held on to the belief that tragedies like the Black Plague were God’s punishment for immorality, and that the world was designed to be cruel.
But these centuries were followed by the Renaissance, a rather dramatic contrast to its macabre predecessor. It was the peak of iconic religious art, and this time, people depicted more themes of hope and light: God with humans rather than above them.
An article from Columbia University called God in Renaissance art “as human as art as ever seen him.” No longer was God depicted in settings of pure divinity like he was mostly seen in the Middle Ages. In the Renaissance, artists emphasized the life of Jesus and celebrated God within the human experience.
How did this new view of God help bring about a shift in ideology and culture? The answer lies in the fact that religion is alive and constantly transformative. During the Black Plague, religious art was characterized by the overarching theme of memento mori, a reminder of how bleak and ephemeral human life is. But by the dawn of the renaissance — which translates to “rebirth” — society began to view life as hopeful and transcendent.
In the same way, these trying times can be an opportunity for artists to reexamine and reinterpret their faith in new ways. A new, contextualized view of God can be a source of light and inspiration.
No one knows when the world will recover from the losses of this pandemic, but we do know that it will always find ways to flourish just as it did in the past. Perhaps it can prompt another era of renaissance.
Art as a Way of Healing
Art, both for the creator and the viewer, is meditative. A study published in the US National Library of Medicine finds that artistic engagement — from visual arts to movements — has “significantly positive effects” on an individual’s wellbeing.
“Art can be a refuge from intense emotions associated with illness. There are no limits to the imagination in finding creative ways of expressing grief,” the study stated. This could explain the resurgence of art and the religious themes behind it. Faith and art understand sorrow the same way.
In a period characterized by isolation, people tend to look inward. Art helps people make sense of chaos and find something within them to be hopeful of. “The role of art becomes more central to our lives, whether we realise it or not,” said Louis Netter, an illustrator and professor at the University of Portsmouth. “Momentary joys, even in dire circumstances, often come through the arts and collective expression.”
But art is not only spiritual for the artist — the experience can be just as liberating for the viewer. Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp describes this as the creative act, where he says that the viewership of a piece is just as vital as its production.
“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone,” Duchamp wrote. “The spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”
For artists who are religious by nature, this process can be considered a realization of their calling. Michelle Bradford, founder of Leaf Institute of Art and Vocation in South Carolina, considers her artistic profession as a mission in itself: “God commanded us [artists] to take the natural resources in this earth that he created and create culture,” she said.
And in turn, the viewer’s appreciation for the art can contribute a sense of fulfillment for the religious artist. “Artists want to know that they have a place in the church, that their creativity and their faithfulness to their calling is seen,” added Bradford.
Faith, Art, and Making Sense of Troubled Times
The resurgence of religiosity in art helps us understand how society experiences loss and separation during the pandemic. People have started incorporating their faith into their work. Artists who display their pieces in churches and museums — which are now closed — share their creations on the streets.
They remind us that spiritual art, as much as it’s personal, is a collective healing experience. By sharing works of faith, artists fulfill the role of being visionaries.
“This rush to make stories out of madness can be a way for us to kid ourselves about circumstances that are difficult to confront or understand. But this instinct can also be a necessary survival tool,” film critic Alissa Wilkinson wrote in a Vox article.
Indeed, art and faith are forms of self-preservation — a concept that’s becoming increasingly vital now more than ever. Is this considered a “remedy” enough for our mental states? Perhaps not completely. But by making sense of grief, loss, and anxiety, spiritual art has done today’s time a remarkable service.