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New Images Help Us See New Realities

Art: Week 1

New Images Help Us See New Realities
Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Let there be light. —Genesis 1:3

The light of divine revelation . . . pierces but does not castigate the darkness. —Barbara Holmes [1]

Just as Pope Francis has catalyzed a worldwide imaginal change today, Francis and Clare of Assisi created a very different imaginarium for many people in their time. They showed us that Christianity could be joyful, simple, sweet, and beautiful. As St. Francis is often quoted as saying, “You must preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” This demands no “belief” or theology whatsoever, but only eyes wide open.

Even art shifted in response to the Franciscan movement—as we can see in the humanistic art of Giotto—eventually leading to the Renaissance where all things human could be honored and celebrated as good in themselves. St. Francis is hardly ever pictured with a book, like so many saints. Many paintings of Francis do not even include a halo. It is not necessary. His enlivened body is already the halo. Francis is usually shown dancing, in ecstasy, with animals, or with his arms raised; his hands were hardly ever folded in prayer, as was the stereotypical style.

In the great basilica in Assisi where Francis is buried, there is a wonderful bronze sculpture of Francis inviting the Holy Spirit. Instead of looking upward as is usual, he gazes reverently and longingly downward—into the earth—where the Spirit is enmeshed. Francis understood that the Holy Spirit had in fact descended; she is forever and first of all here! There are artists who inherently understand incarnation.

One person, symbol, or idea can set the course of history, and its meaning, in one direction instead of another. We recognize some individuals who “turn” history, art, music, and politics in new and unimagined ways, such as Francis of Assisi and, now, Pope Francis. Picasso (1881-1973) did this for painting, Martha Graham (1894-1991) and Michael Jackson (1958-2009) did the same for dance, and Albert Einstein (1879-1955) did it for physics and cosmology.

Leonard Shlain suggested that artists paved the way for new physics:

Art and physics, like wave and particle . . . are simply two different but complementary facets of a single description of the world. Integrating art and physics will kindle a more synthesized awareness which begins in wonder and ends with wisdom. . . .

Shlain observed that several Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Modern painters “contributed directly to the emancipation of color.” Monet immersed “the viewer in the delight of color for color’s sake.” Seurat, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Cezanne all used color in new ways to set mood and perspective and to create vitality. For Matisse and Fauvist artists, “color was an end in itself . . . the colors in a painting were the painting.” Shlain wrote:

Einstein’s realization that light (which is color) is the quintessence of the universe paralleled the apotheosis [i.e., glorification or divinization] of light by the artists. Before Einstein made his discovery, Claude Monet announced that “the real subject of every painting is light.” Echoing this sentiment, Einstein later commented, “For the rest of my life I want to reflect on what light is.” [2]

Today I invite you to pay attention to light—its colors and the wonderful shadows it casts—and see the world in a new way.

[1] Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, second edition (Fortress Press: 2017), 8.

[2] Leonard Shlain, Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light (William Morrow Paperbacks: 2007), 24, 176, 179.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), xv, 45, 225, 251.

Image credit: Composition VIII (detail), Wassily Kandinsky, 1923, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The power of imagination and art is at the level of soul, where we do not consciously know what is happening. Therefore, we cannot engineer it, do not need to understand it, nor can we fully stop its effects! —Richard Rohr
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