Expression and Interpretation of Art Stephanie Loughlin

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

The Last Supper is a well-known painting depicting Jesus' final night on Earth. Examine the painting closely, and try to find something about the painting you have never noticed before. Look beyond what is obvious, asking yourself questions like: How are the apostles reacting? What does their body language suggest about their feelings of this event?

Further examination of works we are familiar with can lead us to find details previously overlooked that may add to the piece's overall message.

Art has always been an influential part of culture for its beauty, historical insight, use as decoration, and way of gathering people around images relevant to their faith, cultural practices, or other revered elements of life. Art is used as a form of communication that does not require written or spoken words to convey meaning. It is used to teach viewers what to pay attention to in their surroundings, what to believe, how written texts have implications on daily life. When used as a form of emotion expression, art becomes a powerful tool in bringing forth feelings that are too complex for words alone. Most importantly, art is a fantastic creative outlet that allows for a chance to break away from life, even if only for a short time, to release all of one’s energy into creating something by hand. Art is a form of emotional, personal, and religious expression that evokes a response or connection from the viewer. To inspire such reactions, however, the viewer must carefully examine the work in front of them to pull apart various meanings and interpretations.

Personal Background

I became interested in art at a young age after watching my aunt draw and paint, admiring her talents and wanting to imitate her artwork. Fancy equipment is not required to make something of your own – my first “real” art supplies consisted of a 20-year-old set of basic watercolor paints in a tin container and a brush from my aunt, but I was thrilled. I had supplies to call my own that could be used to create anything I could imagine. Outside of mandatory classes in school, I was never formally taught how to draw, paint or sculpt. I came to love art because it allows me to express thoughts and feelings without speaking, using a visual representation instead. Art is special because it transcends spoken language, and it does not matter if the artist is quiet or soft spoken like myself – the message is “heard” just the same.

Two of the paintings hanging in my dorm

Vincent Van Gogh and the Post-Impressionist period

Van Gogh's paintings are recognized for their beauty, emotion and color. This is characteristic of painters included in the post-impressionist period, who used bright colors to convey deeper emotions through symbolism. Painters from this time period created art based on feelings instead of depicting the world in pain-staking detail. These paintings used “simplified colors and definitive forms,” but had more abstract qualities than their naturalist counterparts (Voorhies, 2004).

Vincent van Gogh's most famous work, The Starry Night, was created from a deeply emotional state as he was being held in an asylum. This beautiful painting was meant to be a bridge between life and death, as the image can appear to be on the cusp of night and day. Even though it was painted in 1889, The Starry Night remains a popular piece today. This is in part due to the painting’s bold, colorful qualities, but a large part of The Starry Night’s attraction comes from its deep, expressive feel. By looking at the painting, observers can see the complexity in the image in its mysterious setting, ambiguous time and context, and unique sky. These qualities likely reflect the emotions van Gogh was experiencing as he painted this well-known work. He was able to create something beautiful from his tremendous pain, proving emotion can be used to spark something phenomenal.

Kierkegaard's parable of The Two Artists

By creating pieces to highlight emotion and various perspectives on the world, the post-impressionists demonstrate a similar view to the one explained in Kierkegaard’s parable of The Two Artists. This parable uses a story of artists with differing opinions on beauty to provoke readers to reflect on the value of finding love in the world around them. The first artist is very choosy about selecting people to paint because he has not found a face without flaws. The second artist, on the other hand, replies: "...I have not found a face so insignificant or so full of faults that I still could not discern in it a more beautiful side and discover something glorious."

This artist displays belief in humans being “created in the image and likeness of God” (USCCB 1994). He sees value in accepting people for their imperfections and has a way of finding God and finding beauty in all things. This artist strives to find God’s love around him, discussing “love’s being recognized precisely by its loving enough to be able to find some lovableness in all of us” (Kierkegaard, pp. 39).

We were created by the Lord out of pure love and should not be scrutinized for every perceived fault or physical imperfection. Post-impressionist painters were not concerned with making sure their paintings portrayed the world without flaws. Instead, they focused on ways of tying human feelings into their work to create something emotionally powerful and moving that embraces uniqueness. Art depicting the world doesn't have to be a perfect model because everything made by God is good. As painful as the end of his life was, Van Gogh was able to create beauty from the emotional pain he was experiencing


"...the hiddenness of meaning in the world prompts a search for meaning, and summons the observer to interpret the signs of the world"

Like the Starry Night, many pieces and types of artwork can be inspired by complex stories or have meanings beyond what is immediately seen. The possibilities for an explanation or purpose for any given creation are nearly endless. This desire to know what the artist was inspired by and what they were trying to tell their audience are just two of the reasons why art has been revered in cultures across the globe for centuries. Fiddes explores this phenomenon as well, stating: “the hiddenness of meaning in the world prompts a search for meaning, and summons the observer to interpret the signs of the world” (pp. 284). Observers are motivated to dig deeper and find reasons or stories behind the images they see. Humans often want an explanation for everything, becoming fixated on determining a clear-cut meaning for things in the world that do not have an obvious explanation. This leaves the viewer to determine their own meaning based on cues around them. When examining artwork, these cues can come from color schemes used in a painting, placement of background details, facial expression in a self-portrait, or even angles and lighting used in a photograph to highlight certain features. These small details are often central to an artist’s purpose, and discerning why certain elements were included can lead observers to find the message the artist was trying to relay to his or her audience. Vincent van Gogh’s meaning behind The Starry Night is not commonly known, leaving fans to study and further interpret his work.

"Meaning (given by the mind) and being (the object in the world) are always implicated in each other, so that multiple things in the world appear in the light of the consciousness."

While there is value to be found in discerning an artist’s message behind their work, becoming too preoccupied with their meaning can take away from the viewer finding his or her own meaning in it. People have different experiences in life, leading them to be affected in different ways when they see a sculpture, hear a song, or watch characters’ lives play out in a movie. These experiences continue to shape us, affecting our opinions, interests and thoughts. Thus, when one person looks at a piece of artwork, they will likely take away something very different from the person standing next to them. The meaning one gathers from a piece may not be exactly what the artist intended. However, the message one gathers on their own can be just as significant. Fiddes sums this up concisely, asserting “Meaning (given by the mind) and being (the object in the world) are always implicated in each other, so that multiple things in the world appear in the light of the consciousness” (pp. 41). In a simple sense, different minds produce different meanings. This is part of the beauty of art – its aesthetic qualities and purposes silently speak to individuals in different ways.

Art in Religion

Art has been used in religions around the world for centuries to reinforce teachings and beliefs to followers. The visual representation of religious events brings stories to life, making them more real to followers. Congregations can feel a deeper connection to their faith by seeing events and teachings rather than just reading them, making stories seem less abstract and more relevant. For example, most Catholic churches display the Stations of the Cross on the walls to emphasize the events’ importance to the faith. Seeing the images of Jesus’ brutal death endured out of love for us inspires an emotional connection with the Passion. Believers are reminded that they can still learn from events of the Passion, and that they are not shown simply out of tradition. God’s incomparable love for his children is most obvious through the events of the Passion, as he sacrifices his own son for the forgiveness of human sins and shortcomings. Images from Jesus’ final hours portray universal themes transcending time; these events still shape the Catholic faith.

Art in pop culture

While art has changed dramatically in form and type over time, it will always be an influential element of popular culture. Art can be found in pop culture through graphics in television shows, magazines, and comic books, but has come to include digital sources with the rise of technology. These newer visual representations include memes, cell phone backgrounds and photos posted on social media, all containing emotion and meaning for observers to discover. While they may not always seem like complex sculptures or drawings that took hours to create, memes have artistic qualities as shown by their purpose for conveying realistic responses to everyday issues, often bringing about laughter. Social media sites like Instagram showcase photos taken by people around the world in daily life, highlighting even the smallest events or encounters. Each of these sources allow for expression of one’s thoughts, no matter the magnitude or significance of the photo, caption or event.

Art and famous pieces are often referenced in music to paint a picture in the listeners’ minds. The song “Scars To Your Beautiful” proclaims the importance of celebrating every person’s unique beauty and self-worth despite insecurities. It highlights the pain of struggling to conform to society’s definition of beauty, achieving a so-called “perfect” image: “…she praises an image/She prays to be sculpted by the sculptor” (Cara 2015). Cara’s reference to the sculptor could also be alluding to God’s creative power, asking to be formed in a way to fit the world’s ideals of beauty. Instead of referencing broad topics in art, other songs like Don McLean’s “Vincent” celebrate famous artists themselves. “Vincent” tells the story of the troubled life of Vincent van Gogh, using examples of techniques employed by the artist in his paintings and how they reveal his deepest emotions. McLean honors Vincent’s life and acknowledges the hardships he endured, finding peace and understanding in the artist’s tragic death. Aside from his suffering and death, McLean praises van Gogh’s talents while repeating that Vincent endured intense mental and emotional pain unknown to the outside: “And now I understand what you tried to say to me/How you suffered for your sanity.” With such personal details, it sounds like this song was written by a loved one of van Gogh’s reexamining their conversations while he was still alive. “Vincent” is almost like a biography of Vincent van Gogh’s life and work, disclosing the truth behind the bright, cheerful paintings the world has come to love.

Films also celebrate art by including characters who have a passion for creating art of their own or referencing other works of art in a movie. In the movie The Notebook, the main character Allie tells Noah she loves to paint when he asks her what she enjoys doing for herself. Noah takes this into account when building their future house, being sure to include a well-lit area for Allie to paint. Allie’s love of painting becomes something Noah wants to nourish, showing Allie he remembers things important to her. It is through this support and thoughtfulness that Allie and Noah form a deeper bond and fall in love. Artwork can also be included to support a plotline, in movies such as Heaven Is For Real. The film is based on a book by pastor Todd Burpo who writes about his son’s visit to Heaven after a near-death-experience. Four-year-old Colton suffers a serious case of appendicitis and has visions of Jesus in Heaven while doctors operate to save his life. At the end of the film, Todd finds a painting done by a young girl who had similar visions and paints what she remembers from these encounters. Colton’s face when he sees the painting is a look of pure shock and awe as he sees images once only in his memory sitting in front of him. Inclusion of this piece makes the story more credible, showing that two young children have such vivid and eerily similar conceptions of Jesus and Heaven.

Art is used to draw emotional connection and power from observers visiting an art museum, listening to a song, watching a movie or reading a book. Art’s universal impact and ability to transcend written or spoken language breaks cultural barriers, enabling people from across the globe to connect with powerful themes experienced by all human beings. The word “art” is a broad term, capturing all creations from those of well-known artists like Picasso and van Gogh to the messy, crayon drawing of a young child. All forms, however, require the designer to put part of themselves into their creation, channeling their likes or feelings. People often say they “can only draw stick figures,” or “have no artistic ability,” but these statements only come from comparing their own pieces to others. There is no such thing as a perfect drawing or piece of art – that would entail all people having the same ideas and visions.

No matter the source or type of art, creations can elicit a purpose or feeling unique to every individual.
Created By
Stephanie Loughlin


Created with images by vetre - "Art palette with paint and a brush on white background" • Renáta Sedmáková - "Vienna - Mosaic of Last supper - copy Leonardo da Vinci" • Konstantin Kulikov - "Italy. Rome. Vatican. St Peter's Basilica. Indoor view." • Randy Blanchard - "Jesus Christ Crucifixion" • TheDigitalArtist - "instagram social media symbol"

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