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Illuminating the Mystery

The Art of Sandra Bowden

There is much to learn about art and its relationship to the Christian faith by studying the art of Sandra Bowden and reflecting on her own journey as a Christian artist.

Bowden has spent a lifetime creating art inspired by her explorations into the origins of our Judeo-Christian religious traditions. For more than forty years she has been on a journey of discovery deep into the mysteries of the Christian faith. Through her art she explores how image, text, and language can be used to bring ancient wisdom of the past into the present moment, making history alive and relevant.

“My art serves to help reconstruct the past and offer insight for the future,” Bowden says. The Bible, her faith, and her endless curiosity are the ever-present foundations of her art. “My work is a record of my spiritual journey,” she often explains. “The art continually raises new ideas, and I chase those questions.”

Throughout her career Bowden has been a prolific and widely-exhibited artist, having had more than a hundred one-person shows. Her passion for collecting religiously-inspired art has been channeled into the thirteen traveling exhibits called “Bowden Collections.” She’s been a creative catalyst in the world of religious art, helping found Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) in 1979 and serving as its president from 1993 to 2007. Bowden also helped found the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) in New York City.

In 2005, Square Halo Books published The Art of Sandra Bowden, edited by James Romaine and filled with an array of insightful essays about Bowden and her art. Many of the quotes in this essay are taken from “A Conversation with Sandra Bowden,” published in Romaine’s Objects of Grace: Conversations on Creativity and Faith.

The painter Bruce Herman says of his close friend and colleague, “Sandra Bowden is tireless in her work for the common good of the Art and Faith movement. She has served selflessly both the church and the artist community in her work as CIVA’s president; in her development and implementation of dozens of personal touring exhibitions; and in her thoughtful and loving preservation of religious art and artifacts in her collections. We have all benefited greatly by her ministry and generosity over four decades.”

Here are six lessons we can learn from exploring Bowden’s life and work that may in turn influence how we see visual arts functioning in the context of worship.

Art as Doxology

Bowden sees her art as a natural extension of her Christian faith. For her, art and prayer are intimately connected. “Prayer is an exchange, a conversation with God, not always with just words,” Bowden says. “I may start off with words, but then I begin to journey beyond where words exist. The visual releases me of words. My art is a communication between God and me; it is my personal doxology.”

Art is the Illumination of Unseen Realities

Art functions as a point of departure for Bowden’s spiritual pilgrimage—a visual testament to her faith. She sees the role of the artist as “portray[ing] what the eyes of others do not see. . . . Artists do not merely put on canvas what can be seen with our own eyes; they uncover something we have not seen. Art is not merely illustration, but the illumination of unseen realities.”

Bowden explains her visual theology: “As Christians recite the Nicene Creed, which affirms that we believe in ‘the visible and the invisible,’ the artist lives out that creed, making visible the invisible.” She believes art can help us worship, celebrate, and offer praise. To her, the visual arts are a vital part of the life of the church, and she believes it is essential that the church develop a clear theology of the arts so they can be used as a tool for creative ministry. Bowden emphatically states, “We have to find ways to bring the arts back into churches and encourage denominations to embrace the arts with imagination.”

Art is Where Word and Image Meet

In Bowden’s art, the markings of antiquity form the foundation for her creative vision and give her a visual language for expressing her faith. The pervasive presence of Hebrew text reinforces the ancient wisdom at the heart of her artistic imagination. Karen Mulder, in her essay “Materials in The Art of Sandra Bowden,” notes that “the textural physicality of Bowden’s lettering translates the active word of Jehovah into a ‘spiritual’ alphabet. . . . The excerpts of Hebrew and unspecified scripts become a ‘visual glossolalia’ that opens a symbolic portal through the veil of material layers into the spiritual realm.”

Prayer is the art of coming anew into the presence of the Creator. To teach us to pray, that is the work of art. To teach us to see, that is the work of prayer.
— David Goa

“Her art is about the place where word and image meet, coexist, and engage each other in dialogue,” claims art historian Wayne Roosa in his essay “Language in The Art of Sandra Bowden.” “Her art looks as it does because it is both of language and about language. Language is her logos, her ordering principle, as well as her Logos, her informing wisdom.” Bowden effectively translates words into images. The image becomes something to be read, and the text becomes something to be viewed. Through this reconfiguration, ancient wisdom is recontextualized into a contemporary visual vocabulary, helping us understand it in new and insightful ways.

Art Connects Us to the Past

Bowden tends to create art in series. (You can explore the many artistic themes she’s pursued at SandraBowden.com.) “I have come to see,” Bowden explains, “that my many years of being an artist can be described as seeking connections to our past. My work has consisted of series of paintings and prints that related to archaeology, geology, music, ancient illuminations, and art history. The most recent is a new series of gold altarpieces recalling historical structures that have adorned churches and cathedrals. Each of these areas of exploration has enhanced my appreciation for all that has gone before and how God used all these areas as a way to tell of his majesty and power. My prayer is that my art in some small way reflects that glory.”

Art Collecting as a Calling

Bowden is an impassioned collector of religiously-inspired art. In her article “Collecting as a Calling,” printed in SEEN XVI:2, the publication of CIVA, Bowden reflects, “After many years spent collecting religious art, I have come to recognize, for myself, collecting as a calling—to discover, preserve, and share works of art that relate to faith—and a valuable ministry.” To her, collecting is “a way to be in conversation with artists across barriers of time and culture. Their work is like a whisper, a hint, a personal communication to a fellow explorer, which inspires creative imagination and enriches my artistic and spiritual life.”

That lifelong desire to collect art has been transformed into “Bowden Collections,” thirteen traveling exhibitions available for rental to museums, churches, colleges, and seminaries. (Go to BowdenCollections.com to see these wonderful exhibits, which include Marc Chagall and the Bible; Seeing Christ in the Darkness: Georges Rouault as Graphic Artist; Witness to Faith: The Biblical Art of Sadao Watanabe; and The Rains Came Down: Noah and the Ark.) Bowden believes that religious art needs exposure within the Christian community, so she makes these collections available for that purpose.

Three of the Bowden Collection exhibits were recently featured at Calvin College for the 2017 Calvin Symposium on Worship. The Center Art Gallery featured Most Highly Favored: The Life of the Virgin Mary and Ecce Homo: Behold the Man; the Woodlawn Christian Reformed Church Ministry Center showcased Sola Scriptura: Biblical Text and Art, which commemorates the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation.

Joel Zwart, Director of Exhibitions for the Calvin College Center Art Gallery, has shown pieces of Bowden’s personal art as well as many Bowden Collections exhibits.

“Sandra is a devoted and passionate collector whose desire to inform her own art production and further engage Christianity guides her choice of art objects,” Zwart says. “Much of collecting is often rooted in a need to do so for oneself, but Sandra sees herself as a patron or caretaker, charged with sharing this remarkable collection. In that role, she also shapes it for future use and actively loans to galleries, museums, churches and academic institutions.”

Bowden’s art and work in the religious art community has enabled artists, professors, collectors, and curators to imagine the possibility of an increasingly dynamic relationship between the Christian faith and the visual arts.

“Bowden has played an enormously important role in forging new links between the Christian faith and the visual arts—a solid foundation from which generations of Christians will flourish as artists,” art historian James Romaine says. “Her example has given numerous Christians permission to shamelessly pursue their artistic vocation to the glory of God and helped to precipitate a quiet renaissance of a clear and culturally relevant Christian presence in the visual arts unseen in a century or more.”

Art Illuminates the Mystery of “God With Us”

Bowden’s close friend and fellow artist Ed Knippers claims the purpose of her art is “to probe the ancient mystery of the incarnation in order to make it alive today.” Art historian Karen Mulder amplifies this: “Sandra Bowden’s artistic dialogues mine the paradox of our existence as creatures with one foot on the earth and one foot in heaven.” And art historian Wayne Roosa says Bowden’s art “evokes the deeper truth of the Jewish and Christian faiths—namely, that despite the weight given to ‘The Book,’ it is really about the mystery to which the book points. For Christians, the book is God’s Word, but Christ is the Word incarnate.”

Through her art, Bowden uses words and images to explore the monumental event of the incarnation, God becoming man, the pivotal moment that reshaped humanity. It is through the incarnation of Christ that we are offered salvation and the forgiveness of our sins. It is through her art that Bowden seeks to illuminate that incarnation and guide us more fully into living within the rich mystery of “God with us.”