As I have mentioned a few times before, I spent a bit over a year of my childhood in Switzerland, a small country conveniently located within driving distance of most of Europe. This put countless museums, castles, and cathedrals within my family's reach, and we logged a lot of miles in the red VW bug and collected a lot of stamps in our passports.
One of the things that made the strongest impression on me in all our sight-seeing trips was the religious iconography – the pictures on chapel walls and in stained glass windows, the devotional paintings in the museums, the statues gazing down from the pediments and roofs. There are some wild stories in those images! In the days before widespread literacy, this was a very popular story-telling technique: make a picture to tell your tale.
Having been raised in a Presbyterian church where the iconography was limited to a single, simple cross, I was blown away by the drama of these pictures. Look at that guy, shot full of arrows, with a golden halo around his head and his eyes fixed on heavenly angels! How about his lady holding her eyes on a plate? And this plate – somebody’s head is on it in this painting. Fortunately my parents were able to tell some of the stories of these pictures, and even some of the stories about the artists. It doesn’t matter if they knew them already or they were reading them out of guidebooks. I was riveted by the legends. They are part of how stories made me.
Regardless of your religious beliefs or practice, you can find some fascinating stories in a children’s Bible (I use a children’s Bible, because the language is so much easier and the boring parts are taken out) and you can find the illustrations for those stories in museums. If you don’t have a museum, you can use an art history book from the library. Come on, don’t say you can’t do this because you don’t live in Switzerland or close to a great classical gallery! Familiarity with Old and New Testament tales and parables makes a day at a museum a real treasure hunt – is this Judith with the head of Holofernes or Salome with the head of John the Baptist? Look at this shepherd with the slingshot – that might be David before he slew Goliath! I wonder if this picture is showing us the Good Samaritan? Learning some of the legends of early saints and martyrs can help you decipher paintings, too, and make a day at the museum more fun than any movie. Besides, it’s not out of the question that your children may begin to form some ideas about spiritual courage in the process. There’s nothing like eyes on a plate to raise questions about faith and commitment!
Of course a large art museum will have representations of stories and legends from other faiths as well, and I'll talk more about that in a later post. If your family is traveling this summer and you come across an art museum, spend some time inside: you'll find more drama and excitement and great storytelling than at the local movie theater, I promise!