Musings of a couple of seminarians stood in front of a Rothko


On Monday, sat in the Welcome Centre, a friend asked if I had been to the art gallery in Washington DC. After a confirming nod I was asked if I had seen the Rothko’s. I replied “I don’t like Rothko, I don’t really like modern art, because I don’t understand it, I prefer Raphael, Caravaggio, Bernini, Bellini, and Michelangelo”. I was then asked, “have you stood in front of a Rothko?” Sheepishly I answered no, but I had watched the Rothko episode on Simon Schama’s ‘Power of Art’. My friend then went on to explain that television and prints in a book are nothing like standing in front of the real thing. Seeing it in any other way than actually standing in front of it does not have the same impact. Through our conversation I realised how narrow minded I was being by dismissing something before I had given it a try, before I had even seen it. I had made up my mind on whether I liked something or not without before I had given it a chance, much like a child refusing to eat sprouts saying they don’t like them when they’ve never eaten one. My friend argued (very successfully) that I should go into Washington and see the Rothko’s on display, so another friend (sat with us and joining the conversation) agreed to come along with me and see some modern art.

So Wednesday morning saw Matt and I heading into Washington, to find gallery 39 in the National art gallery, to see a couple of Rothko’s in the flesh so to speak. Entering the room the two Rothko’s immediately caught our eye with another wall housing a painting by James Pollock. We stood just looking for quite a while.

Whilst looking at these paintings we discussed what we saw and our thoughts. We soon found our conversation moved from the paintings to liturgy and theology. We discovered that there are parallels between liturgy/theology and modern art, for example, immediately my declaration that I do not like Rothko came to mind. This is very much like those who say they do not like church yet they have not ever given church a try. It is true, I don’t understand a lot of the modern art, I find a lot of it quite baffling, which I imagine is much like liturgy for some people. Going into a building, seeing people dressed in vestments, albs or a surprise. People saying prayers and the Creed together, standing, sitting, kneeling, watching bread and wine be blessed (with or without the use of candles, bells, incense), and lining up to receive communion. To someone who has no experience of ‘church’, the liturgy may be very baffling, with little or no explanation of why we do some things at certain times. This led Matt and I to explore ‘do we need to understand the art to appreciate it or enjoy it?’. Standing there we realised that we do not. We can simply be in its presence and enjoy what we personally take from the painting, whether that is simply liking the look of it, appreciating all that went into it or finding something profound. Similarly with liturgy, we do not need to know the intricate details of everything that is going on. We can simply be in it’s presence. Just like modern art, it is multi-layered.


The Pollock painting is very busy, with every inch of the canvas covered in colour. One could say it it chaos, but it is a beautiful chaos. In my Worship, Ethics and Moral Life classes with Dr Sedgwick (ethics professor of VTS) and Dr Farwell (Liturgy professor of VTS), we have discussed the mysteries of liturgy and spent a large part of one of our lessons discussing chaos. Also we noticed that the Pollock painting had a very thin silver frame which gave a feeling of keeping the ‘chaos’ contained, whereas the Rothko did not have a frame giving more of a sense of space. Matt and I questioned when we think of the mysteries of our faith and of liturgy are we, do we or do we allow ourselves to be constrained like pollock or unbounded like Rothko.

We realised that it is easy to reflect theologically when looking at a religious art in a religious setting; that’s expected period. but it’s surprising to face art that you think you don’t like, that you don’t understand, and end up a having a conversation unpacking parallels between the piece of art, theology and liturgy. And as my friend Matt said “I never thought I would look at a piece of art that at first I though I wouldn’t like and then to find something that not only I liked, but that had multiple layers. And find a theological layer on top of that.” Which really reflects my thoughts too.

This is just a brief glimpse at the musings of a couple of seminariansstood in front of a couple of Rothko’s and a Pollock, (and there were plenty more including Do we project our thoughts onto the art? Are we choosing to see what we want? For the Pollock we saw a hand print, a horse, an aerial view of a town. Do we do this to scripture and liturgy? We discussed how our interpreting the art mirrors how the Bible is continuously interpreted). It struck me that there is a great deal connecting The mysteries art and the mysteries of liturgy. Do we need to understand it? Or can we just appreciate it, be in its presence. What I assumed would be a quick visit to see ‘some art’, turned out to be a couple of hours enjoying and growing to really like three masterpieces that sparked unexpected conversations. And I grew to like the Rothko painting, entitled ‘untitled’ 1955, so much that I went and bought a poster print of it to bring back home. I have definitely learnt not to discount or dislike something because I have never experienced it, to be more open minded and be open to new experiences.




One thought on “Musings of a couple of seminarians stood in front of a Rothko

  1. A friend from back home shared this link with me.

    It is a link to a short clip showing The Rothko Chapel. It was dedicated in 1971 as an intimate sanctuary available to people of every belief. Described as a tranquil meditative environment inspired by the mural canvases of Russian born American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970), the Chapel welcomes over 80,000 visitors each year, people of every faith and from all parts of the world. The Rothko Chapel is a sacred place open to all people, every day.

    The Chapel regularly makes top ten lists of places to visit, and is a featured entry in National Geographic’s book Sacred Places of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Most Peaceful and Powerful Destinations, published in 2009.
    The Chapel has two vocations: contemplation and action. It is a place alive with religious ceremonies of all faiths, and where the experience and understanding of all traditions are encouraged and made available. Action takes the form of supporting human rights, and thus the Chapel has become a rallying place for all people concerned with peace, freedom, and social justice throughout the world.

    The mission of the Rothko Chapel is to inspire people to action through art and contemplation, to nurture reverence for the highest aspirations of humanity, and to provide a forum for global concerns.

    I did not know about this chapel before visiting the art gallery, and after spending time in front of the Rothko paintings and the discussions they sparked, it turns out they were created by an artist who inspired this amazing spiritual space of prayer and quiet reflection.


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