A Presbyterian Turns Catholic with the Help of Sacred Art (By Michelle Paine)

Growing up as a Presbyterian we didn’t have much art in church: occasional felt banners for Advent or Easter, a pulpit, a simple cross, no stained glass, and endless amounts of plain red brick. However, I loved to draw and my family loved to travel. When traveling, we visited the cathedrals in England which showed me, even as a young child, that not everyone thought worship should be unadorned.



I went to Italy in college to study art and art history, somehow knowing that there I could find the heart of it all: if I wanted to study ancient art, it was there, if I wanted to study medieval art it was there, if I wanted to study Renaissance art it was there — whatever direction my historical interests might take me I could find art in its original context. Though, I didn’t expect that in Italy I would also come to know and desire the heart of the Catholic Church.



Seeing and studying art in the context for which it was created I found new layers and depth I had not seen viewing art in books and museums. The art and architecture found everywhere in Italy exhibited craftsmanship so complex that one person could not be master of all that was needed to bring an artwork to completion; multiple artisans and workshops were involved in the production of these famous works.



Much of Italian art (unlike the architecture of post-Reformation England) centers around narratives of the Incarnation, particularly the role of Mary. These narratives were deep and complex, telling a story of a communal worldview, connecting it to what had come before, and by implication, what could and will come later. The physical and metaphorical complexity of such works as the Maitani bas-reliefs on the Orvieto Cathedral, or the Maesta’ altarpiece by Duccio in Siena pointed to a faith that was more full and multi-faceted than I had previously encountered. These pieces celebrated a humanity that was flesh as well as spirit, story as well as doctrine.



The Maitani reliefs are a visual narrative of salvation history carved in marble on the façade of the cathedral of Orvieto, where I lived and later worked for the study abroad program. There are four panels: Creation, Prophecies of Christ, Life of Christ, and Last Judgement. The design of the creation panel mirrors that of the end times; prophecy and fulfillment converse through similarities of format and design. Through this work of art I was introduced to typology, a mode of reading scripture which was new for me. Prophecy wasn’t simply predicting the future but pre-figuring: Old Testament narratives became a model for a story that would be fulfilled through Christ, and could also be fulfilled even in our own lives. Scripture was revealed in a new way as I discovered the story of Gideon’s fleece was a type (or model) for the way Mary absorbed the Holy Spirit, and in turn how we should be open to soaking in the presence of God.



Duccio’s Maesta’ altarpiece in Siena is 700 years old but rich in color, shimmering with gold, and imposing in scale. Our professor asked us to identify each panel of the narrative of Christ’s passion, and I stood there for a long time, mapping out the narrative, finding the corresponding Gospel passage for each scene, analyzing how Duccio melded together the Passion narratives of the Four Gospels to create a visual narrative of Christ’s death and resurrection.




Traveling around Italy first as a student, and then with students while working with a study abroad program for three years, I viewed so many artworks depicting the Virgin Mary and I began to wonder about her. Why was she the central character in so many masterworks? Why she and not Jesus so often above the altar? Through several Italian friends with a strong Marian devotion I began to understand her place in salvation history, how the Annunciation is the moment of Incarnation – and how the Incarnation – God coming to earth – happens each day in the Eucharist. Art was drawing me to the Catholic Church!




Orvieto is also the home of a relic of the Eucharistic Miracle of Bolsena. In the presence of that relic God asked me if I believed it was true – if that was His Body and Blood. Did I believe the paintings on the wall, depicting the Eucharistic Miracle, did I believe His Word in John Chapter 6, did I believe the lives and love of the people I had met there in Orvieto. Art was a part of that moment, too.




18 months later I was confirmed and received into the Catholic Church in the Cathedral of Orvieto at Easter of 2001. Through many works of art and through many relationships, the Holy Spirit had showed me the beauty of the Catholic Church. In these experiences in Italy I met the power of art to communicate the first truths of human experience.


Tell me, have you had a transformation of perspective, a conversion, a change of heart due to beauty? If so, share in the comments! I would love to know about it!





Michelle Arnold Paine is an artist who began to explore the visual richness of Catholicism while studying in Italy during college. She was received into full communion with the Catholic Church at Easter 2001 in the Cathedral of Orvieto, Italy. Michelle now lives and paints in Ohio with her husband and two daughters. Her paintings have been exhibited across the United States and featured in publications such as Dappled Things and Ruminate Magazine, as well as the newest edition of Gregory Wolfe’s essays Intruding Upon the Timeless.

Purchase and view Michelle’s work at www.michellepaine.com.










Kate Capato

Kate is a Sacred Art Painter, Inspirational Speaker, and Faith-filled Movement artist on a mission to spread God's love through beauty! Her inspiration comes from prayerful encounters with the Lord, and the rich traditions of our Catholic faith. When she's not creating something faith inspired, Kate is often traveling all over the world with her hubby soaking in the wonders of God's creation, or spending time with family and friends to live every moment to the fullest. To see her work, visit her portfolio below and share in this mission of spreading truth and goodness.

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