The Transformative Power of Art

The Sistine Chapel

“It got to a point where I thought, Lord, where else can I go? And I returned to my faith.” These are the words of Elizabeth Lev an American Catholic art historian based in Rome.

Speaking recently in Dublin she recalled that she began to approach Michelangelo paintings as depicting reality. “I came to understand that only belief made sense of what I saw. And seeing that he (Michelangelo) believed it made me think: ‘Why don’t I?’ It got to a point where I thought, Lord, where else can I go? And I returned to my faith,” she explains.

Ms. Lev specialises in the works of Michelangelo, particularly his masterpiece the Sistine Chapel. Her talk in Dublin was on the Chapel, the title of which was “Behind the veil: deciphering the Sistine Chapel”.

She highlighted the power of Michelangelo’s brilliance and his theological daring while analysing his remarkable depictions of Mary as Mediatrix, and how he invests his characters with a terrible power, tracing the narrative of the Bible from Genesis to Christ.

But ultimately, her lecture was a testimony to the power of art itself: “One of the three ways we have of evoking the Holy Spirit.”

After the lecture, Ms Lev was asked if she thought a person without faith could really understand the paintings?

Her response were instructive. “I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to have faith. Many people without faith see it and are impressed. But to really appreciate it I think you do.”

We live in a society obsessed with forcing our own interpretations on the world, and art. But what Ms Lev experienced was a traditionally Biblical approach of letting the work interpret you. We read the Bible so that it can interpret us. We read the Bible to understand how we are meant to be. And so it is with art.

Liz Lev, in her enthusiasm and passion, provided a living testimony to the power of art to reveal this truth to us.