Finding the Cross in the Heart of the Andes

In 1857, artist Frederic Edwin Church (student of Thomas Cole) embarked upon his second journey through Columbia and Ecuador in order to see and artistically capture the natural beauty that few in that time had the privilege of experiencing. Church’s expedition was said to be inspired by the travels and exhortations of Alexander von Humboldt, a German scientist who greatly influenced Charles Darwin and others. During this time, there was an increasing amount of interest in studying and exploring the natural world, and Church desired to trace the steps of Humboldt to more realistically portray what Humboldt had observed on his own scientific ventures earlier on. While on his trek across the western side of South America, Church painted what would become his most famous piece, The Heart of the Andes.

The Heart of the Andes is not necessarily a portrait of a direct view of a particular place or time, but rather it is Church’s attempt to realistically combine the all of natural elements that he observed. The detail is phenomenal, and the original can be seen at the MET in New York today. Now, we could spend a while talking about the historical and artistic significance of this beautiful painting, but I want to direct our attention to something that bothered me as I studied this piece. Take a look at the far-left corner of the painting where the light seems to be directing the observer towards a path leading to a cross located at bottom left-center, where an individual is present. While most of Church’s paintings do not include people, this one does; and what is more interesting to me is that this masterpiece (and other works by Church) does include a cross. Why? This seems “unnatural” to put a cross in such a vivid display of nature. Some say it is there because there were (are) alters in that geographical area, but I believe there is much more to it, given Church’s use of crosses in other paintings.

While researching this artwork, I noticed that nearly every commentator or historian made detailed mention of the scientific nature of Church’s work, and this is very true. The Heart of the Andes was actually released the same year that Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). So yes, the scientific elements here are important, and Church was deeply moved by the sciences, but there was something else that motivated his interest in the creation that many art historians did not mention… Church had a profound love for the Creator. He believed that nature displayed the power and magnificence of God. Church was a devout Christian in the Dutch Reformed community who sought to see the glory of God displayed through creation, and he captured in his art for the world to see itself in a different light.

Church was most certainly not anti-science, nor did he seem to draw a line between science against faith. Instead, he saw science and art as means to better understand, observe, and ultimately worship the Creator. In the midst of a deeply scientific culture, Church never lost sight of the cross. I believe there is a message for us here: No matter how chaotic our cultural climate is, Christians should never lose sight of the cross. We should be that person in the painting who finds themselves in the midst of a fallen, yet wonderfully created world and remain at the foot of the cross as we view the power of God to reconcile, restore, and renew all things through Christ.

We maintain a redemptive vision for all things.

What I love about The Heart of the Andes is that the cross is subtle, and probably intentionally so. As I looked at this painting, the cross did not distract me from the taking in the snowcapped Mt. Chimborazo, or the peaceful open plain, or the waterfall the allows the surrounding trees to flourish. Notice how the cross is not forcefully placed in the center, but perfectly located off a narrow and beaten path that is guided by the light. Such is the way to the cross we see in Scripture.

I think Church knew what he was doing, and I believe that his faith in Christ, his love for the cross, and fascination with art and science all make The Heart of the Andes more meaningful. When I look at this painting, I am reminded of my busy lifestyle that craves the stillness that this image depicts. I am also reminded of Psalm 1:3–4 that tells about the blessed person… “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away (ESV)”

I would even argue that in The Heart of the Andes we can sense and see the heart of God. Like depicted in his work of art, creation certainly points us to the Creator, but the narrow path to the cross is where we truly meet Him.

Verses for Reflection

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1 ESV)

“In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.” (Psalm 95:4–5 ESV)

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse .” (Romans 1:19–20 ESV)

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Husband to Christie. Father to Cove and Maggie. Teaching Pastor for The Table. Commenting on theology, culture, biblical studies, the Church, and life.

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Cody Whittington

Cody Whittington

Husband to Christie. Father to Cove and Maggie. Teaching Pastor for The Table. Commenting on theology, culture, biblical studies, the Church, and life.

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