The Power of Using Paintings in Prayer (+ Four Steps on How)

There I was…

…sitting in the midst of a continually moving crowd. Voices were low and the people’s focus was brought back and forth to the walls that surrounded us in the Uffizi Museum in Florence Italy. Every inch had magnificent works to behold and here I was pausing at just one.

Da Vinci’s Annunciation struck me like a bow and arrow this particular day. Many times we are acquainted with quickly looking at images in a museum and moving on to the next. We don’t want to miss a single one, and there are usually so many to gaze upon. I never thought that this did justice to the fullness of each peace though. So that day, I sat still in front of the great masterpiece and soaked in the mystery.

In person, this image is very large taking up almost the entire wall. It had a fresh feel to it, consisting of lighter hues and moving brush strokes; unlike the highly contrasted and mini versions we can see online. The fabric that hugged St. Gabrielle and the Blessed Virgin Mary was vibrant and active. The atmosphere of the scene was that of a brisk spring or perhaps an early summer day. Giant mountains were shown on the horizon, and dainty flowers beneath their feet. In this particular rendition, we see Mary in the midst of the word of God and St. Gabrielle on bended knee before her. They lock eyes in an intimate moment, and time seems to stop. St. Gabrielle holds a lily branch, symbolizing purity, while simultaneously lifting his other hand gesturing that he is speaking. His face is one of such gentle reverence towards Our Lady. One that spoke so profoundly to me while Mary responds in and open curious posture, as if she didn’t know the gift of who she was.

From the brush strokes to the holy moment it depicts, everything about this painting stilled my heart while also shaking it to the core. I found myself there for over 3 hours, just gazing, entering into this moment and allowing the Holy Spirit to take hold of me in the midst of it all. It was if I could feel what both Mary, our Mother, felt as well as St Gabrielle the Arch Angel.  Not to mention, taste the breeze and hear all of creation singing at what glory was taking place.

In this moment, I knew the power that imagery had. Mary L. Coffey, art graduate of John Carroll University, along with many solid artist, studied the great value of using imagery in prayer. Mary Coffey shares, “Images are the primary method of one’s inner communication; words are the primary method of communicating with others, so it makes sense that one should rely on images to express and understand one’s inner journey, one’s thoughts and one’s emotions.147 God knows that the primary language for humanity is imagery so God reveals Godself to humans is in a way that they can understand – through images, symbols and metaphors. God appears to God’s people in the Bible as the burning bush, the wind, and the pillar of cloud and fire, just to name a few examples. God uses images so that humanity can understand the mystery that is God.148″ Furthermore, she proposes the possible effects when praying with imagery stating that,

“…A. Emotions can be freely expressed, especially ones that are difficult to express verbally;

B. Insights can be discovered that may lead to greater understanding and awareness of what is going on interiorly;

C. God’s movement and leading in one’s life can be more clearly seen;

D. Hope is nurtured and the possibility of healing is opened, if necessary.”

It is difficult for me, personally, to tell you in words how my heart changed that day, but it did. All these points Coffey mentions, resonate with me. It is quite clear that when taking the time to be still in front of beauty, we are taking the posture of Mary, receptive and pondering at what the Lord is presenting. Our soul responds accordingly and moves!

This lent I challenge you to take time in front of Sacred Images. Pray in front of a painting or statue of the Crucifix. Gaze upon the scourging of Christ. Put yourself in the footsteps of Jesus as He walks to Calvary. Respond as Mary; open, receptive, trusting. Allowing the Holy Spirit to gently transform your heart.

Here are four powerful ideas on how to best do this!

1.Get in Front of a Real work of Art. This is the most ideal! When we encounter a real work, it is powerful. To see the real size and true colors gives us the fullness of what it is speaking. Go to the museum that you know has Sacred Images. Go to the Church that is lined with beauty. Most Cathedrals are ornately decorated sharing the truths of faith through imagery.

2.Buy a picture book of master artists. If you can’t get to a real work of art and you want something a bit more convenient, there are plenty of books out there that are covered in Sacred Imagery. I have one titled The Passion of Christ. There is only a very little bit of writing and the rest of it is filled with works from: Massaccio, El Greco, Fra Angelico, Tiepolo, and more all based around Our Lords passion.

3.Don’t try too hard. When you are in front of an image, the best thing is to just be. Don’t try to figure it out so readily. Do not get intimidated because you are unfamiliar with art or scripture. Stop trying to have the perfect time in front of it, forcing yourself to say this prayer and that prayer or to feel something. When we do all of this, we end up getting in the way of the Holy Spirit. So, my advice is to get out of the way!

4.Be like a child. Children are the best at experiencing beauty. They look at everything with such awe because they are open. To do this again, we must let go of our barriers and ‘to do’ list. We must let God have control of the moment. Place yourself in the lap of Mama Mary and let your cares go.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with some images that can begin this process for you. They can say much more then I can. I pray this lent brings you a greater union with God Our Father!

Bouguereau Flagellation of Christ

Tiepolo Christ Carrying the Cross

Grunewald Crucifixion

Van Dyck Deposition of Christ


Resource, Mary L. Coffey Theses on Praying with Images :

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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