February 7, 2010

Image as Insight: The Value of Particularity

This column is written by Baya Clare, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet who lives and works as a photographer, artist, and web developer in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

So, why is art important? Why spend time and resources on it when there are so many other needs?

Because, as iconographer Robert Lentz says, “Artists move fences at night.” I believe imagination is foundational for a healthy faith, one that continuously calls us back from thinking we’re at the center of our own existence.

Art and religion are integral to one another because, according to Margaret Miles, together they offer a doorway into “an altered perception of the meaning and value of the sensible world.” In other words, sustained attention to images that attract us reveals a reality not usually apprehensible to the untrained, unreceptive eye. For Miles, “contemplation… begins with visual perception.”

Particularity, the notion that individual creatures, places and events have their own intrinsic worth, is a value of the Christian faith. Our faith in Jesus is rooted in the contextual, historical, physical reality of a specific time and place. Yet, we also participate in the events and the universal conclusions of that time. How is this not paradoxical? It is not, because we participate as bodies.

Everything we are and know and can know is mediated by our own embodiment. There is no abstract, purely intellectual reality. There are, however, some universal truths, but they’re grounded in concrete particularity. For example, the sacraments are concrete, particular expressions of these universal truths.

Here’s where art comes in.

Visual images are always capable of holding multiple meanings. Any image holds wider and different possibilities because viewers contribute their own feelings, associations, knowledge and context. In Image as Insight, Miles explores “seeing” as it was understood throughout Christian history, up until about 300 years ago.

That understanding was anchored in Augustine’s theory of vision, which drew on Platonic physics and physiology. In it, the same energy or “fire” that causes physical warmth was especially present in the eyes. When someone looked at an object, this fire was projected in the form of a ray that went out and touched the object viewed. The object’s image then returned along the pathway linking eye and object, imprinting itself on the viewer’s soul and memory.

“Seeing” was understood as much more active and carried much more conscious potential for transformation. For example, people were concerned about the power of the “evil eye” and took care not to connect with its “ray” by covering their bodies and avoiding direct eye contact with anyone suspected of possessing such power.

Although we’ve left behind Platonic understandings of sight, these understandings can be useful for transformational engagement with images. So, for example, the image on my first post for this column was an embroidered piece of my own. I didn’t reveal that because I wanted you to engage with it without my context. Although it has only been up for two weeks, what do you see? If you like the image, I invite you to continue engaging with it. How does it change for you over time? What feelings does it evoke?

Image: The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, Raphael (Tapestry ca. 1519)


Scott Stafstrom said...

Thank you again for these posts. I agree that visual images do carry different meanings for different people based on feelings, associations, knowledge and context. In a spiritual context we could add: where the person is on their faith journey and maybe direct influence by the Holy Spirit.

Thoughts on your embroidered piece:
When I see many eyes I immediately think of the book of Revelation, where the many eyed characters are present. As I looked longer, I saw levels, with the Earth at the center and God (represented by the eyes) in the farthest level. My initial feeling is longing for God to be closer and not so far away.

I will retweet this @catholicart . Thank again. Scott

claire said...

Dear Baya,

When I look at your tapestry I see a staircase that takes me down in my heart where God is. Since I am a microcosm of the macrocosm, the stars fit nicely in it. The eyes remind me of the Basilica in Conques where some angels (just their face) are looking over the arch of the tympanon at the people looking at the tympanon.
I like the feeling of going down and down toward that tiny light that shines in the depth of my being making me a living temple :-)

claire said...

Oops, I meant 'tympanum' but after checking I realize the word is the same in English and French, ie tympan... Not tympanon...

Sue said...


When I look at your tapestry, I think of the mandala, about a spiral leading us inward in a journey toward God, an introspective journey--and then leading us outward.... perceiving God out there represented in art through our physical eyes, and perceiving God within with the eyes of the heart.

Transcendent and immanent... beyond description.... Our efforts to know God fully are doomed while we possess mortal frames of reference and consciousness, but oh how fulfilling it is to try.

Meredith Gould said...

Echoing all sighted insights by those who have already commented and will add that your embroidery has also triggered (pleasantly so) memories of peacocks. For me, their feathers have always reflected the eye of God.