IT'S LONG BEEN known that empathy may be inherent in portraiture—walking a mile in the shoes of one’s painting subject. As the renowned 15th-century painter and monk Fra Angelico put it, “He who wishes to paint Christ’s story must live with Christ.” New research reinforces this association between artmaking and spirituality.
A 2020 Fetzer Institute study of U.S. spirituality, which includes 16 focus groups and 26 in-depth interviews, reports that more than 80 percent of its 3,600 respondents self-identified as somewhat spiritual, and about 60 percent aspired to be more spiritual. Novelly, researchers used drawings as an “inductive research tool” to understand better what respondents meant by “spirituality,” said Veronica Selzler, lead author of the Fetzer study and strategy director at Hattaway Communications in Washington, D.C. Art allowed participants to define spirituality creatively rather than prescriptively. “It was through these drawings that the diversity and common threads began to emerge,” she said.
The study reproduced 38 drawings in which respondents, aged 18 to 71, interpreted spirituality. The “slightly spiritual/not religious at all” Dale, 69, drew five clouds—one perhaps smiling—and grass as his “happy place, but you could call it a spiritual place.” Daniel, 20, who is “very spiritual/not at all religious,” drew a self-portrait praying on his knees before Jesus.