The Starry Night over the Rhone at Arles

The Starry Night over the Rhone, completed by Vincent Van Gogh in 1888, depicts the landscape in Arles, France. (Musée d'Orsay/Bridgeman Images)

Vincent van Gogh's star-filled sky, Claude Monet's water lilies and Edvard Munch's blazing sun are artworks that speak volumes with brushstrokes. But a new exhibit in Toronto is re-examining these and other magnetic masterpieces under a new lens of spirituality and mysticism.

"In the art world, we tend to dismiss them as popular culture pictures, but I do believe there's a reason they're so popular... They're feeding people spiritually," lead curator Katharine Lochnan told CBC News.

Opening at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Mystical Landscapes: Masterpieces from Monet, van Gogh and more is the first exhibition to consider how art, nature and mysticism intersect in some of Western art's most famous works. 

In the case of van Gogh, he turned to nature and the cosmos in his search for spirituality.

"He wrote to his brother that when he felt a strong need for religion, he looked up at the stars," said Lochnan. 

Dawn over Riddarfjarden

Dawn over Riddarfjarden by Eugene Jansson. (Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde)

On one level, the exhibition can be enjoyed for its high-profile loans, including "destination" pieces — such as van Gogh's Starry Night over the Rhone from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris — or canvases considered national treasures, like Eugene Jansson's view of Stockholm, which seldom leaves Sweden, Lochnan noted.

Mystical Landscapes includes close to 90 paintings and 20 works on paper, created by three dozen artists from 15 countries. It's been in the works for five years, with the co-operation of an advisory committee that included theologians, historians, an astrophysicist, a doctor and a psychoanalyst. 

"We're looking at a very well-trodden period of art history from quite a different perspective," Lochnan said.

"We know that thousands of visitors of all cultures and creeds go to the [Musée de] l'Orangerie in Paris to sit in front of Monet's water lily canvases daily and that they spend hours contemplating them."

Water Lilies (Nymphéas)

Water Lilies (Nymphéas) by Claude Monet. (Houston Museum of Fine Arts/Bridgeman Images)

The exhibit digs deeper by exploring Monet's interest in Buddhism. After building his own Japanese water garden and stocking it with water lilies, "he spent hours in contemplation there, until he felt himself become one with it, before he began to paint. He described his feelings as akin to a state of hypnosis," Lochnan said.

"He invited the then-prime minister of France, Clemenceau [also fascinated with Buddhism] to look at the paintings with him, saying, 'Put your hand in mine and let us help one another observe more closely.'"

Sky (ciel)

Sky (ciel) by Emily Carr. (National Gallery of Canada)

A few years ago, Lochnan began studying theology and re-examining spirituality in her own life. "Suddenly, I saw the pictures in a new way," she said.

She was inspired to examine the spirituality of artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a tumultuous time: institutional religion was falling out of favour, Darwin released On the Origin of Species, political conflicts were building toward the First World War and people were searching for meaning in a new way — artists included.

"Let the artist lead you and show you what the artist has seen ... see what the pictures evoke in you and what you feel as a result of them. They're very affective. They will trigger feelings. People are deeply affected by them." 

The Sun

The Sun by Edvard Munch. (Munch Museum)

"We know that art has an ability to heal, to touch people deeply ... art has a power to transform lives," Lochnan said.

Munch's The Sun was placed on view in Oslo after the horrific 2011 attacks by Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik, she said, noting that the evocative landscape was displayed "in a place where people could sit and meditate on what had happened."

Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel)

Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) by Paul Gauguin. (National Galleries of Scotland)

Though the spiritual subtext has largely been written out of modern art history, Lochnan and her co-curators are attempting to bring this context back in with Mystical Landscapes.

For instance, Paul Gauguin — who had trained in a Catholic seminary — was going through a personal and spiritual crisis at the time he painted Christ in the Garden of Olives (shown with his Vision after the Sermon and Yellow Christ as a triptych for the first time ever).

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Christ in the Garden of Olives by Paul Gauguin. (The Art Archive/Norton Museum of Art)

Van Gogh, however, "disagreed with Gauguin introducing biblical imagery into Christ in the Garden of Olives, saying that when he wanted to paint Gethsemane, he [simply] painted an olive orchard," Lochnan said.

For van Gogh, the Divine could be found in nature.

The Olive Trees

The Olive Trees by Vincent van Gogh. (The Museum of Modern Art )

Today, the world is in a moment of crisis and conflict not unlike the time period from which these paintings originate, Lochnan said. 

"The vast majority of individuals are looking for their own spiritual paths unmediated by religious institutions. There is tremendous interest in meditation and mystical practices. Human beings are wired for mystical experiences: we are all capable of having them," she said.

"By contemplating these works and 'walking with' the artists on their spiritual journeys, viewers will be able to share in their mystical experiences and think about the role of spirituality in their own lives."

Der Niesen vom Heustrich aus

Der Niesen vom Heustrich aus by Ferdinand Hodler. (Aargauer Kunsthaus (Aarau Art Gallery))

Mystical Landscapes opens Saturday at the AGO, the lone North American stop, and continues to Jan. 29, 2017. It opens at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris in spring 2017.