Russ Ramsey is not an art historian or scholar. He’s a pastor who has loved art for many decades, and his recent book, Rembrandt Is in the Wind: Learning to Love Art through the Eyes of Faith, has a writer’s ear for a compelling story, an enthusiast’s sweeping eye for history, and a pastor’s heart that conveys and inspires not only love for art but for humanity.
Rembrandt Is in the Wind is for Christians who have wanted to learn how to better appreciate art. It opens windows into the historical contexts, fascinating life stories, and theological underpinnings of some of the world’s most well-known artists and their works, from Michelangelo to Vincent van Gogh, Johannes Vermeer to Henry O. Tanner.
One common element across the various artists is their affinity for the portrayal of everyday scenes and people. Caravaggio used peasants as his models. Vermeer chose to depict milkmaids and music lessons in his home. Rembrandt painted fishermen, Bazille portrayed his closest friends, and Edward Hopper featured his wife in many of his paintings.
Ramsey writes that Van Gogh’s fields and flowers and workers and farmers reveal a conviction that “this world in which we wait is not ugly or empty. … (T)he world he knew was glorious, alive with color, texture, and wonder.” Van Gogh, along with every artist spotlighted in the book, helps us see this glory and nurture a hope that “a truer, greater glory lies just beyond.”
Art has a way of reflecting back on us the beauty we see. In doing so, it helps us grow a pastoral imagination for the people in our midst in all their loneliness and wonder, their pain and unexpected splendor. In the hands of master painters and sculptors, these portraits of everyday life refresh our vision for our own day-to-day existences, populated with the familiar workplace, home, and church, with the friends and family members and acquaintances we love or begrudge.
What would happen if we began to imagine the people around us painted into the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer? Would our after-church fellowship hour begin to feel less like a time of banal gossip, and more as though we were wandering in a gallery full of masterpieces, where eternal hungers can spring from portraits of the most ordinary people?
This is the gift Ramsey has given us in his book. In learning about the world’s great masterpieces, we are handed a key to rekindle our own loving imaginations for the very real people in our midst.
Today in our Christian circles there is much emphasis on truth and goodness—who is right and who is wrong, what is good and what is bad. Our concerns mirror the eternal attributes of God, who is truth and goodness himself. But have we neglected beauty, another eternal attribute of the one we worship?
“In my experience, many Christians in the West tend to pursue truth and goodness with the strongest intentionality, while beauty remains a distant third,” writes Ramsey. “The pursuit of beauty requires the application of goodness and truth for the benefit of others. Beauty is what we make of goodness and truth. … We should engage with beauty deliberately and regularly, because these are the clothes we will walk around in for all eternity.”
Beauty is what happens when we do not stop at orthodoxy and obedience but press forward lyrically into love. Perhaps it is time for us to remember this crucial virtue and strive to reclaim a pastoral imagination for those around us, no matter our vocation or season of life.
Ramsey writes, “The more we engage with beauty, the more we train our hearts to anticipate finding beauty, until eventually, everywhere we go, we’re looking for it.”
We might start by finding beauty in the magnificent halls of museums, but our training will come to true fruition on the day we begin seeing it in the aisles of a grocery store, among the church pews, and around the dinner table. Ramsey and the masters of old teach us that it is in such ordinary places, among the most familiar people, where beauty shines brightest and draws us near to glory.