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Doug at the Borghese Museum in Rome (Photo by Nancy Peterson)

Most people have heard of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, and Raphael, although some primarily know them as the names of the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Their true fame came from being four of the greatest Italian artists in history.

If they ever add a fifth Ninja Turtle, I recommend they go with the name of another great Italian artist—Bernini. After my recent trip to Rome, I now understand why some people considered Bernini to be the next Michelangelo. His sculptures were the most life-like and exciting that I have ever seen.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was a devout Christian, although not in his early years, when he was wild and crazy. Just one example: As a young man, Bernini had an affair with a married woman, Costanza. But when he learned that his brother, Luigi, was also having an affair with her, he chased his brother all over Rome and nearly beat him to death in a barn. He also had a servant go to the house of Costanza and slash her face.

His life was a mess, but the Lord pulled him back from the brink, and he became a devout man, praying regularly throughout the day. He eventually married at age 41 and went on to have 11 children with a young Roman woman, Caterina.

You have probably seen pictures of Michelangelo’s David, a sculpture showing the young shepherd boy standing upright and holding in his right hand the rock that he would use to bring down Goliath. But I was floored when I saw Bernini’s version of David. This statue caught the boy in a whirl of movement, biting his lip, a scowl on his face, and his torso twisting as he is winding up to fling the rock from his sling.

Bernini was known for capturing moments like these at the height of the action. In a different room of Borghese Gallery in Rome, you can find another action sculpture—this one depicting the god Apollo trying to capture Daphne. When Daphne calls out to her father for help, his solution is to turn her into a laurel tree. (Honestly, I can think of more effective solutions.) The sculpture shows this dramatic moment as Daphne’s fingers sprout leaves, her feet become roots, and her flyaway hair begins to turn into leafy branches.

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Apollo chases Daphne, who is turning into a tree (Photo by Doug Peterson)

Bernini’s subjects were either mythological or Christian, and you can find his work all over Rome. For instance, he created the Vatican Colonnade in front of St. Peter’s Basilica—another stunning, blazing-white creation.

Bernini “saw his artistic work as a channel through which the grace of God might flow to others,” says Terry Glaspey in his book, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know. That’s why I think Bernini is an artist that every Christian should know.

Bernini’s prayer life spilled into his work, for he carried The Spiritual Exercises everywhere he went. This book, written by Ignatius of Loyola, helps people live a life filled with prayer—something with which I have always struggled. But this year I have been more determined to try to build prayer more deeply into my life.

I have consistently built physical exercise into my life—running, swimming, and playing softball. It’s about time that I did the same with spiritual exercise.

In the past, my prayer life has consisted of some tired words when I’m about to drift off to sleep, but I’m trying to stop throughout the day to focus more intently on the Lord. I have found that this is most effective when I get away from the computer and sit on our front porch swing (except when it’s below zero). It’s like sprinkling little mini Sabbaths throughout the hectic day.

I have a long way to go, but at least I’m finally doing something.

Going back to David, the Biblical hero depicted in my favorite sculpture, there are lessons to learn about prayer from this early king of Israel. Like Bernini, David had his glaring sins, as anyone familiar with the story of Bathsheba knows. But he was immersed in prayer—a “man after God’s heart.”

Just sample Psalms 86:1-4 for a taste of David’s prayers: “Hear me, Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. Guard my life, for I am faithful to you; save your servant who trusts in you. You are my God; have mercy on me, Lord, for I call to you all day long. Bring joy to your servant, Lord, for I put my trust in you.”

Note that David said, “I call to you all day long.” Not just in the morning. Not just at night. All day long. That’s what you call spiritual exercise. No wonder he took down Goliath.

By Doug Peterson

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