We’ve developed a tradition here at The Well where each summer we offer something a little different to our audience — something to support the work of rest, restoration, and preparation that we hope is part of the season’s different rhythms.
This year we are offering our Summer 2021 Visio Divina Series. You can read more about this practice in our introduction to the series. Today, we'll take a close look at a piece by artist Henry Ossawa Tanner.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, "The Good Shepherd," (c. 1930; Smithsonian American Art Museum) Oil on fiberboard. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Week 5: The Good Shepherd
Questions for visio divina
- As you begin, take a few deep breaths. While we know God is always with us, invite the Holy Spirit to be present and to speak to you afresh in these moments. Spend some time looking at the image. What do you see? Similar to doing Bible study, make as many observations as you can. What do you like or dislike? Why? What questions do you have?
- How does the artist use color, light, style, composition, and material? What do you think the artist wanted to communicate? What stands out to you? Why do you think this is so?
- Read Psalm 23. How does this add to what you are seeing? Is there other Scripture that comes to mind?
- Spend some time reflecting on the Scripture passage and looking again at today’s image. What is God’s invitation to you? What might you need to see, understand, or believe? How does your current life experience intersect with what you are seeing and reflecting on? How might this image help you pray today? What do you want to say to God? Ask from him?
Scripture passage: Psalm 23
A psalm of David.
The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) was born in Pittsburgh, PA, but grew up in Philadelphia where the family moved when he was young. Tanner’s father, Benjamin, was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and his mother, Sarah, was born into slavery in Virginia, but escaped to the north via the Underground Railroad. Because of these, faith and activism were a part of his upbringing and are reflected in much of his art.
“The Good Shepherd” also known as “Atlas Mountains, Morocco,” was influenced by a visit Tanner made to this part of the world in 1912. The ominous landscape dominates the piece. The monochromatic coloring adds to the overall effect suggesting a landscape is all it is — were it not for the dual titles which pushes us to look for something else in the painting. And there in the bottom right corner you find him, the shepherd leading his sheep along the dangerous path. The way is hidden to the viewer. A narrow path appears in the upper left of the scene, but how the shepherd and his sheep will get there isn’t clear to us. Though the figure is small, the shepherd seems calm and in control. The sheep huddle together and walk with the shepherd, following his lead along the edge of the cliff, doing what they are supposed to do.
It is significant to me that this painting has two names. Could it be that what captures my attention, even my imagination, as I look at it will affect what I call it? If I am most impressed by the mountains which dominate the landscape, I gravitate toward “Atlas Mountains, Morocco.” If, on the other hand, my gaze keeps coming back to the small shepherd in the corner, I will refer to this piece as “The Good Shepherd.” It is the same in life, isn’t it? Uncertainties, anxieties, even danger loom large around us and influence the way we see and interpret our circumstances. They become all that we can see. It has been a really difficult year and while we hope for an easier go of it in the days ahead, there is still a lot of uncertainty. Injustice, unrest, Covid variants, financial instability (personal and institutional), deep political fissures, unsettling divisions in our communities and the Church. The way forward is not very clear and it looks treacherous in many ways, even impossible. It has been hard to see anything else, hasn’t it? But the eyes of faith invite us to see the Good Shepherd who is always there. Perhaps not as loud and big as we’d like him to be, but he is present doing what he has promised — leading, guiding, protecting, caring. Without minimizing the realities of life and the challenges we face, can we train our eyes to see Jesus in the midst of them? Can we huddle with the other sheep around us, follow Jesus together, and trust him to be our Good Shepherd?
Even when the way goes through
Death Valley [or, as Tanner might say, the Atlas Mountains],
I’m not afraid
when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
makes me feel secure.
Jesus, we confess that we are often influenced more by what is going on around and in us than by the truth of who you are and who we are. Thank you that you have called yourself the Good Shepherd and have promised to never leave or forsake us. Give us eyes to see you and hearts to trust and follow you whatever our circumstances. May we also see your goodness and faithful loving kindness which “follows us all the days of our lives.” Thank you for your presence with us now by your Spirit and for the promise of dwelling with you for eternity.
For further study and reflection
Thank you to Dr. Kimberly HIll who pointed me to this version of Psalm 23 by Shane and Shane.
Where is God drawing your vision today? Take a photo and share your thoughts using our hashtag — #visiowell — on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.