Q&A: Spirit Quest V

So I'm not sure in the end whether I have an answer for Badger or not.

On the one hand, removing religious artifacts (cult statues, devotional images, liturgical utensils, and the like) from their original cultic, devotional or liturgical settings would seem to negate any possibility of their having a specifically religious, as opposed to aesthetic, effect.

But, on the other, what effect we experience when looking at such objects seems to depend to a large extent on what we expect to experience, particularly when the principal effect is interpretive rather than purely sensory. That is, unless religious artifacts really are objects of intrinsic power that can act on us independent of our intentions, it is to a large extent up to us whether they affect us.

From this latter perspective, it would seem that it doesn't really matter where we encounter religious artifacts. Rather than being the reason for our reactions, their settings should in fact be seen more as a consequence thereof. But how, then, if at all, should such objects be displayed in museums, given that museums do not on the whole encourage their visitors to do anything other than look?

It occurs to me that I may perhaps have had an epiphany looking at religious art in museum, although I didn't call it such at the time. I was in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., looking at the paintings from late medieval Europe, and suddenly I was intensely aware of how they were trying to depict the power of God. I didn't put it to myself in precisely this way, of course. What I was actually thinking about was Herbert Kessler's wonderful discussion in Seeing Medieval Art (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2004) of the purpose of medieval religious art. As he puts it (p. 14): "[In this book], I focus on one of the principal medieval claims, namely, that art is a means to 'show the invisible by means of the visible.'""[Showing] the invisible by means of the visible!" I was nearly in tears as I realized that, yes, this is what all of these images were about. Not what we can see with our bodily eyes, but what we can see only with the eyes of our understanding, imagination or spirit: "As [for example, in Kessler's words, p. 92] the caption confronting the Christ in Majesty in the Hitda Gospels declares, 'this visible product of the imagination figures that invisible Truth whose splendor penetrates the world with the four lamps of his new words.'"

Look! There, in that painting of the Coronation of the Virgin.* Nobody on earth has ever seen this event, but here it is for us to contemplate in a painting: the Virgin Mary crowned by her Son in Heaven, surrounded by angels and the glory of God. What beauty! What power! Look, how gently she crosses her arms and inclines her head towards her Son and how reverently Her Son looks at her in return. Could there be a more beautiful moment than this, in which she who gave birth to God on earth making Him visible to humanity was welcomed by that same Son into heavenly glory? And there, in the Baptism of Christ, Jesus and John surrounded by a great cloud of saints, most of whom were not even alive at the time of the event depicted, and yet there they are, present in spirit at the moment when Christ was revealed to the world as the Son of God.** How can words possibly express the awesome mystery of this revelation? Mine certainly can't. And look there! The Annunciation: the dove descends upon Mary even as the angel Gabriel greets her with his "Ave!"*** Look at the radiance around the dove, surely the Spirit's overshadowing must have been even more marvelous than this!

I was, dare I say it, in rapture.

But why? Looking for images of the paintings just now to post, I am not experiencing anything close to what I felt in the gallery that day, although I do love the way Juan de Flandes paints the divine energy radiating from the dove. Is it simply that seeing the images on screen is less aesthetically affecting than seeing them full-size in their proper color? (I remember being particularly struck by the pink in Agnolo Gaddi's painting of Mary and Christ.) Or was it the awe that I felt at being in a particular place (Washington, to give a talk later that same day on the twelfth-century devotion to the Trinity to an audience of Jesuits and their colleagues at Georgetown)? Was it that I had recently been teaching from Kessler's book and so the argument about "showing the invisible by means of the visible" was current in my mind in a way that it isn't (apparently) now? Would I have had the same reaction if I had encountered the paintings not side-by-side for easy comparison in a gallery, but rather scattered throughout the churches of Europe serving as they were originally intended, as backdrops for the Mass?

I wish I knew. One answer, of course, is that such experiences come to us when the Spirit moves; we cannot, in fact, engineer them, even with beautiful paintings or reverent settings. We can only prepare ourselves for the possibility of such moments of understanding and awe, leaving their precise timing to the Spirit itself. I remember that day being overwhelmed by how present the Spirit was in all of these paintings, but above all in the image of the Annunciation. I had never seen a dove that big! But, of course, it had to be: how else would the Spirit in all its power appear? And yet, there it was again, in yet another painting of the Baptism of Christ.**** Doves, doves, doves, everywhere doves, everywhere the Spirit, everywhere God's power! But I am not feeling it now, even though, intellectually at least, I most definitely believe it. There is a fallacy here, I think, in the way in which we expect art--any art, but most particularly religious art--to affect us, a fallacy of which medieval artists were always intimately aware: we cannot, through sensory or any other means (meditative, contemplative, devotional, liturgical), control God, and yet it is God who sends us these intimations of His presence. All we can do is, like Mary, wait, prayerfully, book in hand, ready for the moment when He does.

And yet, no, come to think of it, I didn't feel particularly embarrassed at the time to be swooning so in front of all these beautiful paintings. It was the middle of the day on a weekday, so there weren't actually very many other people in the gallery. Plus, who could tell why exactly I was reacting to the paintings in the way that I was? Perhaps I was in tears simply because they were so beautiful and not because I had just been touched by the Spirit, if in fact I had. It's funny with the Spirit that way; it usually doesn't show itself visibly, except--through our imaginations--in art.

*Agnolo Gaddi, The Coronation of the Virgin, circa 1370, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.203.
**Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altar, The Baptism of Christ, ca. 1485/1500, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.78. NB, Dan Brown: One of the saints depicted is, of course, Mary Magdalene with her jar of ointment.
***Juan de Flandes, The Annunciation, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.22.
****Juan de Flandes, The Baptism of Christ, ca. 1508/1519, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.25.


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