I recently took my nine-year-old son, Karol, to the National Gallery of Art here in Washington. I knew that a nine-year-old’s idea of a fun Sunday was not necessarily looking at art, but I thought he needs some exposure to it and we can do it in limited amounts, maybe once a month. Besides, I knew a good ice cream place nearby and there’s always an incentive behind every disincentive.
We decided to take it slowly and, so, we sat down in the medieval galleries. One of NGA’s paintings, Paolo di Giovanni Fei’s early fifteenth-century piece, “Presentation of the Virgin,” poses the interesting problem of perspective.
The modern eye senses, of course, that there is something akilter here, though it doesn’t immediately get what. It took Karol a while, with leading questions comparing how people looked to him in this and the adjacent room of the Gallery, to figure out that medieval sacred art usually does not line up as if we are looking at it but that its most important figure is looking at us.
Mary is looking at us. Nobody else is. The others either are looking at her, or looking at each other in conversation, as if pondering something about her.
When we look through our eyes, what is closer to us appears bigger. As things move away, they become smaller. But Mary is the centerpiece, and she is big; the two persons at the foot of the central altar area (the patron? us?) are smaller, although closer to us, with their backs turned on us.
Medieval perspective takes getting used to, because it is different from the modern focus on “Mr. I.” It certainly is not the modern deconstructionist approach to art that wants “paintings” devoid of meaning, meaning imputed by each subjective viewer. Unlike the modern and certainly unlike the post-modern perspectives, I as the viewer is not so important as I the viewed.
It’s not just the medieval perspective. It’s the Christian perspective.
That day happened to be the Fourth Sunday of Lent, when the Church reads John’s Gospel of the man born blind. The Old Testament reading, from First Samuel about the anointing of David, reminds us that “Not as man sees does God see” (I Sam 16:7).
That was pretty clear from the perspective of medieval art.
The Gospel also challenged us to recognize that Jesus demands we see things differently: “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind” (John 9:39).
Five years ago, I reviewed a little book written by Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik Human Frailty, Divine Redemption: The Theology and Practice of the Examen. The book focuses on the examination of conscience, a devotion Catholics once practiced before going to sleep, reviewing their day to see how they lived it in the sight of God. The examen is a staple of Jesuit spirituality and a key element of St. Ignatius’ process of discernment.
Rupnik himself is an interesting fellow: he is a Slovene Jesuit, based in Rome, director of the Centro Aletti, a foundation that focuses on contemporary sacred art and iconography. Its work has been gaining an international presence, e.g., here in Washington at the Redemptor Hominis Church in the St. John Paul II National Shrine near The Catholic University of America.
Rupnik is an artist, so he knows about perspective. He is also a theologian and, because his work involves iconography, he knows that icons are not “produced,” they are “prayed.” The theology of Eastern sacred art presupposes that it is God who provides the inspiration, the perspective.
I thought it was a little odd to write a whole book on the practice of the examen but, after reading it, I cannot recommend the book enough. Rupnik is not so much focused on “how to” do the examen as much as the theology behind it. And the key point of that theology is: learning to look at yourself as God looks at you.
It’s not a question of how I saw my day, even if I am measuring it against the Decalogue or the Commandments of Love. What matters is praying to see myself through God’s eyes: the good and the bad. Nor, as Rupnik notes, it is not just a question of tallying the past but of seeing the future. How does God see what I have done and what I am in the light of the future and the plan he sees for me? How are things going in terms of God’s Divine Plan for salvation and the role he foresaw me playing in it? For the Eternal God, after all, all history is but one present: all of us fit in it, and all of us are fitting into it for better or for worse. What matters is seeing that fit from the perspective of God.
Modernity and post-modernity, with their preoccupation on the moment and the me, don’t get that. We have so ingrained that vantage point into our psyches that, looking at di Giovanni Fei’s work, it takes a while to figure out that I am not looking at the picture as much as it is looking at me. But that is also how our place in salvation history appears: it’s not me looking in, but God looking out … at me. And, as Samuel was reminded, “not as man sees does God see.”
As we move towards the Paschal Triduum, we sometimes see a painting, “View from the Cross,” by nineteenth century French artist James Tissot. The painting, in the Brooklyn Museum, tries to show us what Jesus saw around him as he hung on the Cross. The Marys and John are there, along with the Romans and Jews. Jesus can even see his future tomb in front of him.
I’ll admit the one thing I don’t like about the work is that almost all the eyes are focused back on Jesus, too. It might be flattering, but I’m not sure that was wholly accurate. There must have been folks on Calvary that day that were just “doing their job” and waiting for the execution shift to be over, to crack some knees and get out of here. The indifferent were there, too.
But the important thing about Tissot’s painting is that it reminds us: the message of Good Friday is to ask how God sees us. Because, in the end, that is the only perspective that is real and so the only one that really matters. So, it’s in our interest, too, to recast our viewpoint by taking up God’s perspective.
Which suggests, during this Paschal Triduum and beyond, taking up the reset that the examen gives our spiritual lives.
And maybe we might also visit a medieval art gallery.