By Charlton Walters Hillis
Leonardo da Vinci was one of the best. A philosopher, a scientist, an inventor, a dreamer ahead of his time. An artist and a genius. Vitruvian Man. The Last Supper. Mona Lisa. Sketches of flying machines—in the 1400s. Think of the greatest artists of all time, and you just have to include him, at or near the top of the list.
This morning NPR was in the lavish Peacock Room, designed, decorated and painted by Whistler, another famous artist. The whole room is a piece of art. I listened—as one who majored in fine art after mentally flipping a coin between that and writing—and my mind wandered. Fine art is a field of people who love to create, and there seems to be a noticeable number of atheists among creative people, at least among the ones who surface in interviews and biographies on NPR. This morning, as I listened to news of the art world, I found myself thinking that atheistic artists make about as much sense as atheistic astronomers. As with science, art seems uniquely qualified to be close to God (how can a brilliant astronomer study the stars and come away believing we are star dust?).
I was driving at the time—driving through a canopy of trees, oaks and maples mostly, full of thick, green, spring leaves. I could not at the time see any mountains, rivers, oceans, sunrises or such. Just the trees were enough. Lots of people paint trees. Not a one of them even imagine their work is close to a real tree, not really. There’s no comparison with the competition. And yet a lot of those who paint trees don’t believe in a tree Creator.
My mind wandered some more, and I thought of all those magnificent da Vinci works, and I began to focus on the Mona Lisa. Then, next to that great masterpiece, I imagined a three-year-old’s penciled copy. A crude attempt at a large circle, with wobbly sticks coming straight out of it, meant to be arms and legs. You’ve seen kids do that. Two uneven dots for eyes and some kind of mouth to match. If you let the Mona Lisa represent God’s creation and the stick drawing the crown of the art world, you get a bit of the idea. Just a bit, because God’s universe is so magnificently huge and complicated, we can’t even see it all with our best telescopes and cannot comprehend its ways. This is another paltry comparison, but the best I could do that early in the morning.
Scripture says the fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” The more you think about it, the more you see why God used a word like “fool” to describe someone who is blind to the evidence.
Once I spent a week in the summer home of an elderly British couple. She was a writer and he was a sculptor, and I don’t mean they played around with hobbies in their declining years. These were serious artists, both of them, and successful. They had followed the passions of their hearts for most of their lives, and her books were gripping and his sculptures more so. Sitting in the dark, cozy little living room of that 300-year-old cottage not far from the stunning beaches of the English Channel coast, my gaze fell on the window. Five or six bronzed sculptures, eloquently fashioned by the gnarled hands of our host, commanded the wide window sill. An old man raising his fists to the heavens. A mother gripping her infant. And other figures. Just beyond, on the other side of the glass, a scene of pastoral beauty. Trees of several different varieties, including fruit trees, framed the yard. An English flower garden bloomed in wild natural profusion, a glorious blend of colors from boastfully tall red hollyhocks to diminutive yellow and violet blooms. Beyond that, a glimpse of sheep grazing in a green field under a sunny sky. The sort of storybook scene amateur artists like to paint—even when they haven’t ever seen anything that pretty in real life. It seemed almost unnecessary to point it out. The art in the window, made by the artist. The art outside the window, made by “The Artist.”
How could anyone miss it? Yet the hospitable couple in the cottage missed it every day. Like many modern Europeans, they were atheists. I once observed her throw her arms up to the sky and exclaim, “Why don’t they get it? There’s nothing up there!”
Convinced the creation inside is the result of one man’s talent and toil, they remained equally convinced the creation outside is merely the result of chaos. Endowed by his Creator with exceptional talent, the old sculptor believed himself and his skill to be accidental. Alone in life, and oblivious in death. Unlike his sculptures, something from nothing.
“…For all that may be known of God by men lies plain before their eyes; indeed God himself has disclosed it to them. His invisible attributes, that is to say His everlasting power and deity, have been visible, ever since the world began, to the eye of reason, in the things He has made…” Romans 1:20 (NEB)