What’s Your “Madonna Moment?”

Paul Tillich, one of the most significant theologians of culture, tells of a moment in which he profoundly experienced the divine through gazing at a painting. Tillich had been a Lutheran pastor and served as a German Army chaplain in WWI. During his service in the war, he discovered that looking at books of art helped to distract him from the horrors of war.

Kelton Cobb, in his generously informative Blackwell Guide to Theology and Popular Culture, describes Tillich’s story this way:

At the end of the war, Tillich, who had only begun paying attention to art as a diversion from the fighting, resolved to go see some original paintings at a museum in Berlin. Once there he found himself standing before Sandro Botticelli’s fifteenth-century painting, Madonna with Singing Angles, a painting from one of his books that had comforted him at the front. Years later, Tillich wrote of this moment at the museum:

(and now Tillich)

Gazing up at it, I felt a state approaching ecstasy. In the beauty of the painting there was Beauty itself. It shone through the colors of the paint as the light of day shines through the stained glass windows of a medieval church.

As I stood there, bathed in the beauty its painter had envisioned so long ago, something of the divine source of all things came through to me. I turned away shaken.

That moment has affected my whole life, given me the keys for the interpretation of human existence, brought vital joy and spiritual truth. I compare it with what is usually called revelation in the language of religion.

I can recall maybe three experiences with art that come even remotely close to what Tillich describes here. The first two occurred during my college years. The first was after completing John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meaney. The second was at several points during reading Dostoyevski’s Brother’s Karamozov. The third was more recently. I think it was the second or third time I heard the Avett Brother’s song, “Head Full of Doubt.” (seriously).

What about you? What’s your “Madonna with Singing Angels” moment?




About Kyle Roberts

(PhD) is Schilling Professor of Public Theology and Church and Economic Life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Roberts has published Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Cascade, 2013) and is currently co-authoring a theological commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans) and A Complicated Pregnancy: Was Jesus Really Born of a Virgin? (Fortress Press, Theology for the People)