The study of Renaissance art transformed the faith of a retired psychologist

By Gigi De La Torre, Catholic Press Service

DEARBORN, Mich. (CNS) — For centuries, Renaissance art has captivated and penetrated many hearts and souls.

Christine Panyard, a 43-year-old retired psychologist and parishioner at Church of the Divine Child in Dearborn, is no stranger to the transformative effects religious art can have on the soul.

In his new book, “Stalking Michelangelo, Finding God”, from Wipf and Stock Publishers, Panyard shows how the truth, goodness and beauty present vividly in these sculptures and paintings, which portray God and the grandeur of his creation, transformed her from a “very fallen” Catholic to one on fire for her faith.

Feeling called by the Holy Spirit to share her spiritual journey with others, Panyard wrote “Stalking Michelangelo” and included her award-winning photographs of Renaissance art from around the world in her book.

For her, it all started with Michelangelo.

“I have always loved travel and history and have become fascinated, probably obsessed, with Renaissance art and especially Michelangelo,” Panyard, 75, told Detroit Catholic, the news outlet. online from the Archdiocese of Detroit. “I read everything I could get my hands on and traveled the world trying to understand his work and the roots of his greatness.”

Panyard explained that as a psychologist, she studied personality and intelligence levels. She was curious and wanted to know “what made this genius tick”.

This would lead her to encounter Christ through a medium in which she had never encountered him before: art.

“I was impressed by the grandeur of (Michelangelo’s) work,” Panyard said. “He created the most impressive building in Rome, St. Peter’s Basilica, the most beautiful statue in the world, Rome’s Pietà, and the most glorious frescoes ever seen, the ceiling and the altar wall of the Sixtine Chapel.”

Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment” is pictured in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican Museums in this file photo from Feb. 21, 2020. (SNC Photo/Paul Haring)

Looking at Michelangelo’s masterpieces, Panyard realized that she couldn’t really understand Michelangelo’s genius unless she understood the biblical stories and themes present not only in art by Michelangelo, but also in the works of many other Renaissance artists.

“When I started my studies, I didn’t understand a lot of the stories depicted in Renaissance art, so I started reading the Bible so I could make sense of the paintings and sculptures,” Panyard explained. .

As a result, she not only began to study the scriptures, but also spent countless hours before the Blessed Sacrament.

While some Renaissance art is displayed in museums, Panyard explained that a majority is in churches, such as the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. It was in these churches, before the Blessed Sacrament, that Panyard began to feel the grace of God working on his soul.

“What I noticed were what I called weird, crazy, weird, weird, psychotic experiences,” Panyard said. “I would go to churches and the organist would start playing or the monks would start singing. I would arrive at the sites in time to see an ordination, a cardinal’s birthday celebration or even Pope Benedict celebrating a mass to canonize a group of saints.

When she was in a museum, she says, she never felt such experiences.

She attributes the difference to the presence of Jesus — body, blood, soul and divinity — in the Eucharist. “I believe the power of the Blessed Sacrament changed me and brought me back to church,” Panyard said.

“I started to notice that I was praying more. In the beginning just a sign of the cross when I entered a church or a short prayer in front of the grave of someone from that time whom I admired. Then I started showing up just as a rosary or mass was starting,” she explained.

“Slowly, without realizing it, I went from being a very weak Catholic to being a member of a secular Discalced Carmelite community,” Panyard said.

Panyard hopes to make her final pledges to the secular community of Discalced Carmelites at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish (Grotto) in Detroit in January 2024. She made her temporary pledges in January 2021.

In his new book, Panyard explains his spiritual journey using the metaphor of a Gothic cathedral.

“Gothic cathedrals usually have a large plaza in front of the church. It is usually surrounded by businesses and was the center of activity in the city,” she wrote. “For many years I lived outside the church, spending my life in professional and social pursuits. I wandered like a pilgrim walks past a cathedral trying to figure out what the buttresses, gargoyles and sculptural programs meant.

“I eventually went indoors to study art,” she continues. “I wandered inside and developed an understanding of baptismal fonts and holy water fonts as places of purification, confessionals as places of reconciliation, art as illustrations of the basis of our faith, and finally the altar as a place of sacrifice and redemption.”

Thanks to her retraining, Panyard said, “I no longer focus on pain and perversion like I did as a psychologist, but on beauty and the spirit.”

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De La Torre writes for Detroit Catholic, the online media of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

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