Faith Explored Through Imagination

Deepening Spirituality
Image of paint brushes and tubes of paint
Ian McKillop

Iain McKillop is an artist and art historian; he is also ordained and a regular retreat leader.

In the following article there are a number of references to specific works of art. Links to each one can be found in the endnotes.


The human imagination has been important throughout the development of spirituality and the Christian faith. We cannot see or touch God or prove most spiritual things that believers consider to be realities. The imagery and symbolism in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness and Temple, the Psalms, Prophets, Wisdom and Apocryphal literature and Christ’s Parables, provide metaphorical ways of reaching into the mysteries of God. Theology since Richard Hooker (died 1600) has maintained that we find God through Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience.  Yet we are capable of thoughts far beyond the limits of our knowledge. Faith is based on trust not empirical proofs: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” [Heb.11:1]. Yet in imagining God we must be careful not to form false ideas or spiritual untruths as some unorthodox beliefs and artworks have done over millennia.  

Christians have not ‘invented God’, as sceptical critics sometimes suggest. Rather we are using human faculties to relate to a spiritual reality in which we trust. Our faculties of ‘intuition’, ‘inner perception’ and ‘imagination’ are not easily measured or tested. Yet in faith, trust in these often becomes stronger than reason and experience in developing a fulfilled relationship with God. Faith is not governed by intellect, though none of us should believe naïvely. Intuition, insight and imagination are more like ‘God’s Spirit witnessing to our spirit that something is true’ [Rom.8:16]. Traditionally some Christians have been wary of imagination and intuition, as flights of fancy have often misdirected the Church into idolatry, false beliefs, the quest for novelties or invented legends [Eph.4:14; 1Cor.12:2; 2Cor.11:3; 2Thes.2:1; 2Tim.4:3].

Scripture warns against idolatry of any kind, making many Christians wary of visual representations of faith [Ex.20:4; Deut.4:16-25; Ps.106:19; Isa.40:19; 1Cor.8:4 etc.]. John Chrysostom (347-407) recognised that God is beyond our understanding: “Let us evoke God as inexpressible, incomprehensible and unknowable. Let us affirm that he surpasses all power of human speech, that he eludes the grasp of every mortal intelligence, that the angels cannot penetrate him, that the cherubim cannot fully understand him.  For he is invisible to the principalities and powers, the virtues and all creatures. Only the Son and the Holy Spirit know him.1.. Martin Luther warned: “the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol.  If your faith and your trust are right, then your God is the true God.  On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God.2.. Thomas Merton similarly wrote: “We should live as if we are seeing God face to face, but we should not conceive an image of God. On the contrary, it is a matter of adoring him as invisible and infinitely beyond our comprehension and realizing him in all.3.

Yet human beings were created with the faculty of imagination as a positive gift for promoting human advance.  Imagination helped to develop the Christian Faith, even if it sometimes led believers along paths that have proved to be unhelpful or have been considered by others to be false or heretical.  Several major Christian doctrines developed through applying imagination. The concepts of ‘Trinity’, ‘Christ’s divinity’, ‘the priesthood of all believers’, ‘justification’ and ‘Salvation’ all developed from imaginative interpretation of scripture. Imaginative imagery in great literature, art and music has expanded our spiritual sensitivity and insight.  Creative liturgies and artworks help people reach deeper into faith. I believe that our imagination is as necessary as reasoning in awakening and expanding faith. Practical faith needs to keep updating and applying Christ’s teachings to the contemporary world.  We do not necessarily need to ape contemporary styles and forms of communication; the best traditions often still resonate. Our imaginations and lateral thinking can devise missional ways of communicating the reality and presence of God to our contemporaries. 

Though trained with degrees in Art History and Fine Art, I came from a Christian Brethren background where the Bible was supposedly the foundation for all belief and many were suspicious of the visual or the intuitive. I was shocked when, during theological training, the Bible came alive to me visually.  Immersion in scripture inspired sketch-books-full of images, which I found also conveyed aspects of faith to others. Nearly 40 years later my imagination still opens scripture and enriches my relationship with God. 

This has been true of art over centuries: Mediaeval and Renaissance artists often brought scripture alive by setting biblical figures in the dress of their own times and environment as have Stanley Spencer 4.and Roger Wagner 5. more recently. Artists like Mantegna 6. and Piero della Francesca  7. attempted to recreate the classical past. Holman Hunt 8., James Tissot  9., David Roberts 10. and Henry Ossawa Tanner 11. travelled to Palestine to paint scriptural subjects with topographical, historical and cultural accuracy, aiming to convince sceptical, late C19th society about biblical truth. I personally give my figures relatively non-descript clothes and settings to suggest the biblical past while trying to show that the emotions and beliefs are relevant today. Others try to convey the numinous more abstractly.  Different minds find varieties of ways to explore and express their faith and experience.

It is dangerous to try to squeeze too much meaning into one artwork. A picture is not a doctrinal statement, treatise or sermon; it is a metaphor to convey ideas in different ways from words.  Religious images are not the reality, just reminders of biblical passages or themes, asking the viewer to reflect or meditate upon the ideas or feelings within. A critic once said that to truly understand a picture, one must take at least as much time considering it as the artist took in creating it. That’s not necessarily true, but one should certainly think about a work of art in context and spend time exploring its detail and potential meaning. You can read a picture in a similar process to Lectio Divina, but always consider what it meant when first created, before considering its meaning to you.  In my role as an Art Historian who researches the context of art deeply, I must admit that I am sometimes frustrated by the inaccuracies and naivety in some Christian writers who pontificate on the meanings in paintings without much background knowledge or research. Their interpretations can be as erroneous as commentating on scripture without considering its context.

Painting a picture takes a long time. My altarpiece for the Lady Chapel of Gloucester Cathedral 12. took three years of contemplative prayer and painting. A set of Stations of the Cross or my recent Resurrection Stations take me 2-3 years. Working on a painting for months is an intense form of meditation, thinking thoroughly the subject, meaning and relevance of the theme.  Ideas change as pictures develop. The creative process is also similar to Lectio Divina:  I pray, read, fill pages of sketchbooks with notes, ideas, compositional variations, possible figure poses and gestures.  Like a film director or choreographer I imagine the scene from different angles and under different lighting and atmospheres, to develop a composition that conveys maximum meaning and feeling. The master at this is Rembrandt; he chose exactly the right point of a narrative and the best light effects and poses to convey spiritual meaning subtly (e.g. Joseph confronted by Potiphar’s Wife, The Supper at Emmaus, Return of the Prodigal Son or his painting and etching of Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac.) 13.

Even well-planned paintings often change drastically during the painting process as my thoughts develop. Over months the scenes and characters gradually come to life.  A slip of the brush can alter an expression, gesture or focus my mind on new potential meanings to follow.  The slightest expression in an eye, mouth, angle of an arm, hand or finger can change the sense of what a figure is doing or thinking.  An invented face might remind me of someone, and help me consider the character I am producing. I paint on panel to more easily scrape out and make multiple alterations.  I regard my paintings far more as meditations through which to explore and convey truths, than illustrations of biblical scenes. 

The process of interpreting my faith through painting helps me consider my relationship with God more intimately. I am not just exploring what scenes may have looked like historically: images are only metaphors. The painting process primarily involves living with the subjects for months and finding how they speak to me and the contemporary world.  The more I have lived with, studied, and think through my work, the more complex I realise that faith is. Art can become a catalyst for exploring its meaning. The best art opens us up and sensitises us to considering realities that we might not be able to explain tangibly by logic or reason. 

In my paintings I am not an illustrator, commentator, preacher or propagandist. Propagandist art can sometimes be unsubtle and insensitive, as in some art of the Reformation, Counter-Reformation and Communist Revolutions.  I want to create images that help others discover truths for themselves when they meditate upon the image or theme, as I have done in creating the paintings.  I would like to communicate something of what I have discovered, but it is more important that the viewer engages their own ideas and imagination. I would love to help people to find a relationship with God and explore truths that bring them spiritually alive, and I hope that sometimes my art might be a catalyst for this. But my main aim is to create an image that enhances the viewer’s visual and spiritual sensitivity. Engaging, imaginative imagery can encourage viewers to find their own spiritual and visual responses. 

Emile Zola wrote that ‘art is reality explored and conveyed through the senses.’  Sensitivity is a key to conveying meaning and encouraging response. I try to understand the thoughts, responses and relationships of the figures I am painting. Think of Abraham’s facial expression in Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’.   Only in four of my own works (‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’, ‘The Gloucester Cathedral Lady Chapel Altarpiece, ‘The Reconciliation of Peter’ 14. and my recent ‘Resurrection Altarpiece’ 15. the first image), do I consider that I have I so far communicated with sufficient sensitivity, but I’ll never approach Rembrandt’s mastery. 16.

Christian works of art are not spiritual realities in themselves.  They are catalysts through which a viewer may gain insights into spiritual truths.  Orthodox Christian theology regards icons as containing historic spiritual realities: they are visual representations of spiritual truths, ‘visual theology’, though not those truths themselves.  I, like many Christian artists try to create metaphors for spiritual reality, vehicles through which viewers may consider the truth within the stories, figures and ideas that I represent.   It is fairly straightforward to imagine and depict Jesus’ human suffering in paintings of Christ’s Passion.  Painting joyful images is far harder; they can seem simplistic or naïve.  My most recent Resurrection Stations 17. are the hardest images with which I have ever struggled.  How can one depict the mystery of the Resurrection, Christ’s resurrection form and the hope that the Resurrection offers, let alone the joy of Pentecost?  I am creating metaphors for really complex ‘mysteries’.  Yet the words of the theologian Helen Oppenheim encourage me:  “We are not trying to pronounce about what God can or cannot be, but about how God can be found in our world… God’s people have the hopeful responsibility of being the presence, the ‘findability’ of God upon earth… Our diversity should enable God to be found in all areas of life in our world… The word multi-faceted comes to mind.  The Church may be a prism breaking up the white-light of God’s dazzling majesty.” 18.

I hope that my paintings can be ‘facets of truth to shine for a few people’.  Artists, and all creative people, as well as preachers, minsters and congregations have the responsibility to use whatever gifts, experiences and spiritualities they have to shine light and colour into the world that may help others recognise aspects of God’s truth. 

Work can be viewed on my website:   https://mckillop.weebly com/


1. Treatise on the Incomprehensibility of God.

2. The Book of Concord. Transl. T.G Tappert 1949 Philadelphia: Fortress Press, p.364

3. Hidden Ground of Love p.63-64

18. Helen Oppenheim, Theology 93 1990 p.133-141.



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