Looking at Pictures
One of my passions, as many of you know, is the art and architecture of the Christian west up to about 1850, and my trips abroad have centered on opportunities to engage with this art at first hand. One of the most rewarding aspects of this is hearing parishioners who travel with me as they engage with the art themselves. Even if they are untutored, their responses to the art are often very perceptive and instructive to me. Yet too often travellers (trained perhaps by movies or television) glance at pictures or sculptures and move on, without having engaged with what they are looking at. It is telling that they will spend more time reading the placard than looking at the picture. After a while they are bored and dissatisfied, even though riches lie all around them. But to the person who is willing simply to look at the picture, humbly, patiently, attentively, the picture itself will unlock to you its rewards. It helps sometimes literally to describe the picture to yourself, and to question it: as you do so, the picture begins to speak. Simply to ask the question, what am I seeing? and to start answering that question, allows the picture to speak with an eloquence that may astonish you. It’s a bit like reading a text is or being a language – As Fr Crouse would say, you keeping staring at it until it makes sense.
And this can work even for pictures that at first glance are not appealing. In the Siena Pinacoteca (a museum with a marvellous collection but whose staff apparently disapproves of visitors), there are many wonderful pictures by Sienese painters from 1200 to 1700; but one painter whose work I was particularly eager to see was Sassetta, who died around 1450. (Most of his best pictures are in Britain or the USA, but it is typical of my Scottish obstinacy that I go looking for things that are not there. I once spent an entire trip to Rome hungering for a glimpse of the Baroccis in the Vatican Pinacoteca only to learn that they were on loan to the best Barocci exhibition in history which was taking place … in St. Louis!). Nevertheless, there is a Sassetta in the Siena Pinacoteca, and I saw it. The lighting is particularly harsh in that room; and the painting is in very poor condition, even to an untrained eye; the surface bubbled and in large patches crudely overpainted at some later period. At first glance, it was very disappointing – but it was Sassetta, and Sassetta was one of the artists I had come looking for. So I waited – I have learned to wait – and slowly, like radio signals from a dying star, the picture began to speak, or rather, to cast its spell on me. I have rarely been so conscious of the power of art. I don’t suggest anyone start looking at pictures with such challenges to enjoyment; but if even a ruined icon can exert this power, think what a fine picture in good condition can do in the mind and heart of an engaged, attentive and patient observer.