Picasso's Dance of Youth: A Theological Encounter

     The immediate impression of this piece is one of vibrant simplicity. Its simplicity is conveyed through the plain white background and primary colors reminiscent of crayons and kindergarten. Simple, too, and childish, is the scribblish nature of the lines, lines themselves the simplest form of marking. The overall circular shape of the image also hints at simplicity. But the circle is far from sterile—it is bursting with energy. This energy and vitality is found in the energetic motion we imagine must have taken place to create the freehanded lines we see. The circling characters, too, seem to be in motion—dancing and laughing and singing as they hold hands. With knees up and an uncertain relationship to the ground, the circle of celebrants is so full of life and joy that their levity manifests as levitation.

     Important spiritual imagery and symbology is also apparent. The characters are of four different primary colors, reminiscent of the Sunday school tune: “Red and yellow, black and white they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” And yet, these figures while bursting with the simplicity and vitality of children, generally have the long and lanky limbs of adults. Thiers thus appears to be a mature joy. Between their held-hands is something green, presumably an olive branch—for it is also in the mouth of the central figure, a blue dove, evoking the story of Noah’s search for life and hope—and the relief of its discovery. The dove is two dimensionals—without depth. With no crossed lines and a pure white center, its presence is bold. Like the Holy Spirit which descended on Jesus at his baptism, this is a transcendent figure.

     Thirteen persons make up this circle of joy, a possible reference to Jesus and the twelve disciples, giving the image eschatological connotations. With this in view, I return to the apparent levitation of the group with 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (NIV2011). In the midst of such hopeful contemplation, my eyes are drawn again the indeterminate relationship between these character and the lines and dots below. Questions proliferate: Is this the earth? How far above the earth are they? Are the dots the points of ‘launch’? The cities and families remaining below? Has the green peace that dwells in the mouth of the dove and in the shared grasp of the joyful community arisen from the green earth?

     One of the most subtle and most provocative aspects of the piece is the use of the color blue. Centrally, the peace dove/Holy Spirit is outlined in blue, evoking the waters of flood and baptism. Evocatively, Picasso also uses blue to sign and date this work. Is he hinting at his own role as an instrument of peace? Is he provoking us, as the artists of our own lives, to be peace-makers? The dating of the piece, while perhaps typical, creates a stark contrast to the acontextual nature of the scene. While the artist is utterly specific—I am Picasso, who created this work on July 25 of 1961—the characters of the piece are impossible to locate in either space or time. This juxtaposition draws me in to the tension between the everyday reality of my existence and the beatific vision of human harmony and joy in the eschaton.

      At one level, this image fills me with an eschatological hunger for the completion of all things. It evokes deep longing as I peak at the joy and beauty and life that is to come. At another level, this image deepens my affective desire for a new human community on earth. More specifically, it enriches my vision of Christian ecumenism as a circle of celebration and difference around a uniting Spirit. Thus, this image serves both to fuel and enrich theology as well as energizing me for the work of reconciliation.

     Visual images can serve many useful spiritual purposes. Several include: serving as iconic aids for worship; sacralizing the commonplace; secularizing the sacred; making space for prayerful exploration of the questions and ambiguity one is experiencing; enlivening scriptural or historical scenes for the sake of entering the Christian story imaginatively; serving as a prayer prompt as it reveals human need; and providing visual parables that convey the nature of the Reign of God. One of the most powerful potentialities of visual images is to give viewers a new vision/awareness of reality as it is. In the words of Pablo Picasso himself, “Art is a lie that helps us see the truth.” Appreciating the power of visual images can train one for apprehending (or being apprehended by) all that is seen.

      According to Dallas Willard, all change occurs through a three-phase process: vision, intention and means. With a vision of life as it might be, I intend to live differently and employ means to assist me. As giants of the spiritual life attest, Christian spirituality is in large part a matter of vision—coming to see differently. For what we see (even if by faith) is what we live in accordance to. Seeing is, indeed, believing or we might say what we see is what we believe. Thus renewed seeing inevitably manifests in renewed living.

     Church and spiritual leaders can help people benefit from the power of visual images for spiritual enrichment in a number of practical ways. Most obviously, times of corporate worship can include demonstrations of the potential of visual images by incorporating them in various ways, such as including images on the walls or screens, using an image (rather than an anecdote) as an illustration, and welcoming artists to create publically during worship. Creative means for empowering people to profit spiritually from visual images more frequently could include: leading a contemplative trip to a museum; making virile images accessible via cell-phones; or intentionally impregnating everyday objects such as eyes, water or trees with spiritual meaning through instruction.

      God has intentionally created humans to experience God’s own pluriform goodness. Thus each and every sense and capacity have been given so that through it we might taste, see, hear, feel, think, remember or imagine that the Lord is good. Visual images have the potential to help us to “see” the Invisible and experience God’s Spirit through the capacities of pluriform emotion, memory and thought. May the Church be able to join in the Samaritan confession: “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have [seen] for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world” (John 4:42 NIV2011).


  1. I came across this photo while looking for an image that depicts ecumenism. This image then brought me to your very insightful blog. I do indeed plan to read more of your work and I commend your work thus far. Have you written on missional ecumenism ?

  2. Stephen,

    Thanks for your comment. I have indeed written on ecumenism and mission, with reference to Lesslie Newbigin. Here are a two of the most relevant links:
    http://www.jesusdust.com/2008/01/goal-of-ecumenism-why-and-how-to-be-one.html, http://www.jesusdust.com/2008/01/that-world-may-know-newbigins.html