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)