I was in New York a couple of months ago and we went to The Metropolitan Museum of Art for a couple of hours. I’m so early on in my study of art and religion that I don’t really know too much, but I spent the majority of my time in the religious art section. I walked really slowly, read captions and paid attention to the details. I was less engaged with the aesthetics like I normally would be as I usually spend all my time with the impressionists. Those guys are a good entry point into loving art, who doesn’t adore a couple of ballerinas dancing around in tutu’s by Degas? This time however, I found myself instead caught up in the meaning, the significance, the painter, the churches they were once hanging in and the people who found connection to God through them.
One painting in particular called “Christ at the Column” read, “Christ is bound to a column, bleeding from having been beaten by Roman soldiers. This sort of composition was created for meditation and private devotion. Attention focuses on the pain and suffering of Christ, with whom the viewer is encouraged to empathize.”
I spent a bit of time looking at this painting and found that it was actually quite moving. I couldn’t really articulate why, or give some profound nugget of wisdom I gleaned from a painted Jesus, but never the less I learned. Words take us so far in an in intellectual understanding but with more mystical things like faith so often emotions are a powerful educator. We learn when we empathize with and relate to pain, the strain on one’s face, the torment in one’s eyes, because as humans we can feel another’s hurt when we see it in them. In this painting we see it in the face of Jesus and that reminds our hearts of His sacrifice, our minds always knew it, our words always said it, but our hearts find the way to connect to the monumental burden it was to take on the weight of the world and we now know it in a deeper place than our study could ever take us.
We're always craving connection it's built into us, a desperate need to feel another’s joy and pain and have others feels ours too, it’s the antithesis to loneliness, it’s the pinnacle to knowing and being known. Words and wisdom aside when our hearts are broken we run to those who carry the weight of our pain like it was their own. I often prize the mind and its solidity never to be swayed by unruly and unreliable emotions but I found in that moment that there can be wisdom in understanding from the heart that comes through empathy. I looked into the face of Jesus depicted by an unknown artist in the 16th century, and like the thousands of Christians who have seen his suffering expressed on this canvas, I felt the weight of what He did for us and I was moved to tears. “Thank you”, it’s all I could think of, everything else was without language.
I went into this portion of learning, wondering if I could gain anything from art, how spiritual can it be? Isn’t it just paint, and canvas, and one man’s depiction of the religion of the day? But I have instantly discovered I’m bound to. I’m in my head all the time, I’m rationalizing and ideating with little respect or understanding of the heart, of what it means to believe without proof, to just know and connect in a wisdom and knowledge beyond the capacity of my mind. What if I have a lot to learn from all those parts of me that don’t have language, with an understanding that isn’t quantifiable yet still has profound meaning and wisdom all the same? Maybe logic alone won’t get me there, and without all the noise, and against all my assumptions about the way religion must be understood, I’ll be surprised to find God there in the abstract, in the silence.