Learning to Look

A few months ago, a friend and I were discussing icons and how to “read” them. I’m no expert in the world of iconography, but I did study them in my required Medieval Art History class and have read a couple books on how to use them in prayer. Coming from a background of art history, I tend to look at icons through the lens of the time period – How did the artists see the saints they were painting? What were the specific rules applied to painting an icon? Why were certain colors used? I am fairly analytical by nature, and looking at art in an historic, questioning way makes sense to me.

Holy Trinity by Andrey Rublev
Holy Trinity by Andrey Rublev

We were looking at the Holy Trinity by Andrey Rublev. In his book, Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Henri Nouwen describes this icon as an invitation into hospitality, into the house of love. In his analysis, Nouwen places God (the left figure) as the Father, blessing his Son. Jesus (in the center) looks to God in submission to his mission as sacrificial lamb. The Spirit (on the right) points to the altar as a confirmation of this divine sacrifice (pp 23-24).

My friend is much more intuitive and saw the three figures in less of a hierarchical position and more of a position of mutual submission, each looking to another. While I agree with her in the practice of mutual submission rather than hierarchy, the historian in me flinched, wanting to know the “true” story behind the icon before I agreed with her interpretation.

Since the purpose of icons is leading the viewer into prayer, not into an art historical criticism, I think my friend was on the right path to truly understanding the painting. It was created to bring about a personal experience of prayer with the figures, not for the viewer to nitpick an experience with facts.

In leading guided experiences at the Clyfford Still Museum, kids in my group often want to know the facts. What is this paining of? Why did Still choose these colors? What was he thinking? The facts are that we know what was happening in the world around Clyfford Still; we know some of his influences; we have letters he has written. But, we have very few pieces of text about the why behind his paintings. Still didn’t even title his works, believing that

“As before, the pictures are to be without titles of any kind. I want no allusions to interfere with or assist the spectator. Before them I want him to be on his own, and if he finds in them an imagery unkind or unpleasant or evil, let him look to the state of his own soul.”

He wanted looking to be the experience. What do you see in this moment? What do you feel? What is your own experience telling you about the art? It isn’t for him as the artist to tell the story but for us as the viewers to interpret an experience.

Clyfford Still, PH-960, 1960
Clyfford Still, PH-960, 1960

I’ve reflected on our conversation over the past months, not so much in light of reading icons, but in how I process art and stories in general. When someone shares their story or life experience, I tend to look at it through the lens of history. What are the facts that have made this person’s experience? What world events were happening at the time to influence outlooks and decisions? How does every puzzle piece fit together to makes sense of a story?

In reality, our stories are much more free-flowing and intuitive. There aren’t always facts to back up experiences and sometimes a life-changing event happens just because – not because of some outside event, but just because it was the time and place in our own lives for it to happen.

As someone who loves to read and know before making a decision or an opinion, being more intuitive and in-the-moment doesn’t come naturally to me. But, I’m learning to look rather than learn; to feel rather than to analyze. There will always be a place for history and critical thinking, but if I can listen to a story or experience a piece of art in the moment before making any critical links, I wonder how my worldview will shift?

How do you see the world? Are you a thinker or a feeler?

PS- If you’re interested in praying with icons, I’d recommend Behold the Beauty of the Lord by Henri Nouwen, Praying with Icons by Jim Forest, and Sister Wendy on Prayer by Sister Wendy Beckett.

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4 thoughts on “Learning to Look

    1. I definitely think it’s a spectrum (like most things)! For as analytical as I am, I’m a huge believer in intuition and often go with my gut instinct. Having said that, on the spectrum, I’d say I lean more toward research and critical thinking.

  1. This is quite thought-provoking on many levels. When we visited Greece some years ago icons were in abundance. I was fascinated by the art and never considered the history beyond it was old. I’m deep like that 😉 In our ministry, we hear many stories. Some start similar to mine but take a different turn and we’re left wondering the why. Seldom do we come up with an answer for that.
    I really like your statement about looking without learning. Yes, there are times when both is required and best but just to look…sounds like the childlike faith. Thanks Annie. This was filled with pondering for me!

    1. Learning to stop, look, and listen. It’s something I used to teach my students but is hard to put into practice…. I’d love to visit Greece someday. I remember in Italy just sitting at Santa Maria Maggiore, the oldest basilica in Rome, being in awe of the icons and wishing for more art in our Protestant churches!

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