Russ RamseyHow should we appreciate art through the lens of the gospel? Why are we drawn to beauty? Why do we seek perfection in artistic expression?

Bible Gateway interviewed Russ Ramsey (@russramsey) about his book, Rembrandt Is in the Wind: Learning to Love Art through the Eyes of Faith (Zondervan, 2022).

What is the message behind the title of this book?

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Russ Ramsey: The title Rembrandt is in the Wind is a play on words. It refers to Rembrandt’s painting Storm on the Sea of Galilee, in which he paints himself as one of the disciples in the boat—the one in the center of the vessel looking out at the viewer. So in the painting of the storm, Rembrandt is, quite literally, in the wind. But this painting was also stolen in 1990 and has not been seen since, so in the criminal sense of the term, the canvas itself is “in the wind.”

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Encounter Scripture with Fresh Eyes and Your Imagination: An Interview with Russ Ramsey]

Why is this book necessary?

Russ Ramsey: I wanted to write a book about art that overcame a perceived inaccessibility to the subject. Rembrandt is in the Wind is part art history, part biblical study, part philosophy, and part analysis of the human experience; but it’s all story. It’s an invitation to discover some of the world’s most celebrated artists and works, while presenting the beauty of the gospel in a way that speaks to the struggles and longings common to people everywhere. For anyone who has stood in front of a work of art and liked it, but felt a barrier to truly understanding it, this book will set them free to simply love and appreciate art, while modeling the slow approach to learning to love art more deeply over time.

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How is the book organized?

Russ Ramsey: The opening chapter frames everything to follow, highlighting the biblical significance of goodness, truth, beauty, work, and community, focusing especially on why beauty matters and what it does.
The rest of the book features studies of nine different artists and the stories behind their work, incorporating analysis of related Scripture, all told in a storyteller’s voice.

Why does beauty matter?

Russ Ramsey: We’re drawn to beauty, and we instinctively know that somewhere, somehow, such a thing as perfection exists. We seek both beauty and perfection, at great expense of money and time. Beauty we can find. It’s all around us, in a million different forms. Perfection, on the other hand, eludes us. It’s as though, to borrow a phrase from Meister Eckart, perfection inhabits our true home, but we’re walking in a distant country. We’re like revenants. On the other side of the veil is the tangible glory of unfailing perfection, but it’s just out of our reach. So we’ve given ourselves to the pursuit of making copies from the dust of the earth, compressed by time, crafted by pressure, but conceived by something more than mere imagination. Our best attempts at achieving perfection this side of glory come from an innate awareness that it not only exists, but that we were made for it.

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What lessons do you draw from Michelangelo’s David sculpture?

Russ Ramsey: I am not typically one to rank things in order of best to worst, but I believe Michelangelo’s David is the single greatest artistic achievement by an individual in the history of humanity, and I defy anyone to point me to a superior substitute. This is not to say it’s my favorite work of art, because it isn’t. It may be in my top ten, if I was the sort of person who made such lists. But it’s a near-perfect sculpture of an almost impossible subject matter—the naked human form. And it’s carved from unforgiving marble, where all an artist can do is subtract. If it were bronze, the artist could build up deficient areas, or fix mistakes. But to carve an object from stone, you must get everything right the first time.

And yet, it’s made of a material that is wasting away. The stone the quarrymen hewed from the mountain was filled with all kinds of imperfections before the first tap of the first sculptor’s hammer and chisel. Though the marble was capable of accommodating the physical toll of the thousands of taps from the sculptor’s tools, and even though it has managed to stand for over 500 years supporting its own weight in all kinds of conditions, David is made of a material that’s perishing. This reality was present from the beginning. The same time and pressure that gave us the stone from which David was cut could reclaim him in at any moment. Still, we flock to see him, standing there in all his glory.

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What do you mean, “the world is short on masters, and consequently, it’s a world short on joy, too”?

Russ Ramsey: For Rembrandt to become who he was, he had to train his hands to paint as he alone was made to paint. But in doing that, he had to learn the fundamentals. He had to practice. This means he must have started somewhere. It’s hard to imagine, but there had to have existed some pretty terrible Rembrandts at some point—early charcoal works hung on the wall and loved only by his mother.

What’s not hard to imagine is a solitary figure in a lamp-lit room mixing his oils, preening his brushes, thinking and painting and thinking and painting. Practicing.

Later he would say to young artists, “Try to put well in practice what you already know; and in so doing, you will in good time, discover the hidden things which you now inquire about. Practice what you know, and it will help to make clear what now you do not know.”

The mastery of something leads to a greater enjoyment of it. Singers, musicians, painters, writers, athletes, and artists of all stripes know this. The harder we work at something, the more we’re able and free to enjoy it. Rembrandt knew this too.

Why and how should a person “spend their life looking at art”?

Russ Ramsey: Developing a love for art is a lifelong venture, and one of life’s great and simple joys. The key is not to master all there is to know overnight, but to grow over time. This starts by looking. How do you look at a work of art? Gravitate toward what you like. Go to museums. Take time to look at a work and read the plaque on the wall beside it. Think about what you’re looking at. Grow your vocabulary; as you read the plaques or read articles and books, make note of words or references that are new to you.

You don’t have to become an art expert overnight. Just keep your eyes open. Pay attention. Follow social media accounts based on artists you like—there are hundreds of them. Over time you’ll expand your base of knowledge, and you’ll develop a deeper familiarity with art, which will lead to a deeper enjoyment.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?

Russ Ramsey: Bible Gateway has been at the top of my bookmarks bar and one of my most used apps since I became a pastor years ago. I love being able to find my sermon text easily, read it in my preferred version, but also read it in any other version I like. I use Bible Gateway whenever I link to a text in a blog post or email to our congregation because not only is the platform easy to use in that way, it’s also a resource I want my congregation to become familiar with over time. I cannot think of a better search tool for biblical literacy than Bible Gateway.

Rembrandt Is in the Wind is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.

Bio: Russ Ramsey is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM).

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