By M. T. Crowley
2008 Doctoral thesis, Australian Catholic University
The written works of the English religious writer, spiritual director and exponent of Christian spirituality, Evelyn Underhill (1875 – 1941), contain numerous references to visual art and church architecture. This thesis explores the influence of art on her spirituality by examining her interpretation and understanding of various works of religious art, cathedrals, churches and chapels. The controlling methodology of the thesis is within the discipline of spirituality. This hermeneutical approach, which seeks to investigate and understand the phenomena of the Christian spiritual life as experience, is structured on three processes: observation and description of the phenomena under investigation, critical analysis of the data, and constructive interpretation of its transformative and integrational character. The study presents Underhill’s early life, reading and education within the Anglican tradition as the backdrop against which her appreciation for art and knowledge of Christianity developed. This knowledge came to life through the experience of Continental Europe and in particular the galleries and churches of Italy and France. While there her sensitive and intuitive personality enabled Underhill to be drawn into the beauty and mystery of visual art and church buildings. In that experience, she came to a new awareness of God. The thesis traces Underhill’s encounter with fourteen works of art, one cathedral and several churches and chapels. It follows the process of how these shaped her experience, stirred her imagination and informed her thinking so that they gradually became a foundation on which she established her particular understanding of God and the spiritual life. The investigation approaches her encounters with art by examining their influence on her concept of God, on her perception of Jesus Christ and on her understanding of the Holy Spirit. This leads her to a personal understanding of God as the Creative Spirit. This particular perception, together with her experience of art, enables Underhill to recognise a structure within the spiritual life of grace and desire that is enabled by the gifts of the Creative Spirit and expressed through adoration, communion and cooperation. Integral to this progression in Underhill’s spirituality is the gradual process of life integration through self-transcendence evident in her spiritual journey and which this thesis traces and develops. Informed by intuition and experience rather than by theological concepts, doctrinal statements or scripture, Underhill never developed a systematic theological structure. The thesis investigates the implications of this on Underhill’s spirituality, particularly in reference to her understanding of the Trinity. The thesis argues that although she was aware of the more formal aspects of Christian teaching, in her understanding of the spiritual life Underhill placed more emphasis on image and place. While the focus of the thesis is the influence of art on Underhill’s spirituality, this inquiry draws also on those determining aspects of her life, of the circumstances and events of the times and of religion in general which were formative of her spirituality. Thus at times throughout the project there is an overlap of philosophy, theology, anthropology, epistemology and aesthetics – all of which are at the service of the overarching methodology of spirituality. The thesis concludes with the contention that while visual art was not the only guiding inspiration in Underhill’s spirituality, it was a major influence on her spiritual development, on her understanding of the spiritual life and on her teaching.