Psalm 16:11 “You show me the path of life, O God. In your presence there is fullness of joy.”
At 8 by 19 feet, Hugo Van der Goes The Portinari Altarpiece was the largest Flemish altarpiece ever made, but its purpose wasn’t simply decorative. The altarpiece traveled by sea to Pisa in 1483, going from there to Florence, where 16 men carried it to a hospital church. There in the church chapel of Santa Maria Nuova it was to provide support for the weak, wounded, and dying. In other words, this was a work of art destined from the start to speak to those on a journey.
The central panel of the altarpiece presents the viewer with a clear directional path: the viewer’s eye is led to the Christ child by means of Mary’s hands, which, at the geometric center of the image, point to Christ. Angels’ hands equally direct the viewer to the child. Shepherds burst in past the frame of a building to join in this gesture with the others. They hungrily direct their gazes and hands towards Jesus. One shepherd, breathless from running and excitement, can scarcely contain himself.
Contrasts between the left and right sides of the central panel — contrasts made all the more emphatic by the pictorial contrast of light and dark — suggest the Old Testament (at the left) and New Testament (at the right) are now joined symbolically at the point of the Christ Child. On the right, shepherds’ tools form a cross, and in the center, a path beckons to fields beyond. We remember that Bethlehem, the setting, is the city of David, and that behind the stable are fields we know: these are the fields which Ruth the Moabite gleaned, and the path behind the walls of this crumbling nativity structure is the path by which Ruth and Naomi once returned to Bethlehem, driven by famine.
Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, had lost the three men in her life, leaving her destitute. In the Book of Ruth we are told that with no surviving sons to care for her she was forced as a last resort to return to relatives in Bethlehem. In this forced migration Naomi was accompanied by Ruth — single, alien, and female Ruth. It is not without importance that throughout the narrative she is referred to not as “Ruth” but as “Ruth the Moabite.” Nevertheless Ruth famously vowed to her mother-in-law Naomi, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Ruth 1:16 (NSRV)
Ruth and Naomi found a redeemer here, just outside of Bethlehem, in the person of Boaz. Ruth and Boaz had a son, who became the grandfather of David, making Ruth one of the foremothers of Christ. This provision reversed the death and emptiness that had afflicted Naomi and Ruth, bringing the possibility of new life. In larger perspective, as The Portinari Altarpiece reminds us, the provision of a son provided for all people newness of life, one we are reminded of in this pictorial moment in Bethlehem.
Works of art continue to speak to those of us on a journey. In periods of transition, or at least when in unfamiliar terrain, we often rely heavily on analysis and cognition as we attempt to interpret our environment. This makes sense in terms of our efforts to understand what to do next. However, there is danger when we define this path as the only valid path of understanding. Art offers us the ability to increase our understanding beyond the cognitive, offering a path involving imagination and feeling.
I recently picked up an article written by Christian clinical therapist Petra Blum. Of her work with a largely Christian clientele she writes, “I see much denial in the landscape of the heart. The facts are told, the evidence presented, yet the heart is not allowed to give it color.” In alluding to the desire of our hearts to “sing” she writes, “the volume is turned down or off, and the colorful score is denied.”
Quite often we deprive ourselves of living life fully, of loving and receiving love, and of hearing God’s voice, because we simply do not allow ourselves to live through the heart. Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, and others outside of the visual arts long ago validated aesthetic experience as a means of spiritual encounter branching beyond cognition. Certainly this was Henri Nouwen’s experience as he discovered his own intense response to Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son. In his text by that title Nouwen described a spiritual adventure stimulated by an encounter with the painting, of which he wrote:
When I first saw Rembrandt’s painting, I was not as familiar with the home of God within me as I am now. Nevertheless, my intense response to the father’s embrace of his son told me that I was desperately searching for that inner place where I too could be held as safely as the young man in the painting.
In the Old and New Testaments, while intellect, reason, and will are consistently valued, the “heart” (the seat of the emotions), is routinely referred to as a person’s holistic center. Scripture affirms that emotions are a God-given part of our design and are integral to our being. And it is artists who have much to teach us about this, about working from the seat of the emotions. What was true in Nouwen’s experience may be true for us as well. Spending time before works of art nurtures in us a quality of presence allowing us to hear God’s voice.
Some of us come from theological traditions which do not recognize the piety of time spent with art. In describing her enthusiasm for art in her interview with Bill Moyers, Catholic nun and art commentator Sister Wendy Beckett spoke of the danger of “numbing out,” claiming, “the one fatal thing to human life is to become a zombie.” She went on to address the ways in which standing before works of art, on the other hand, beckons us out of ourselves. Art, she explained to Bill Moyers, forces us to be “there,” to be present, to be in the moment, demanding of us attention and alertness. Art gives us pleasure but it may also give us pain, that is, awareness of suffering. But either way, art draws us out.
Time spent with works of art nurtures our ability to embrace willingly and openly the seat of emotions, returning to an unassuming state before God. The Portinari Altarpiece speaks to those of us on a journey, taking us through the paths of Mary, Ruth, The Samaritan Woman, Mary Magdalene, and the woman caught in the act of adultery, culminating in the central figure of the Christ child as our Messianic hope. May we recognize in our infirmities, our transitions, and our encounters along the way this season, our path to the Christ child.
Petra Blum, “Unpack the Heart with Words: A Historical Look at Literary, Scientific, and Philosophical Views of the Heart,” Perspectives: Covenant Seminary Francis A. Schaeffer Institute newsletter, Fall 2003.
Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son ( New York: Image, 1993) 17.
Sister Wendy in Conversation with Bill Moyers. Video recording. WBGH Boston, 1997.
Linda Stratford walked through The Portinari Altarpiece with those in attendance at the Day Ahead pre-conference event Finding Space for God, preceding the Following Christ 2008 conference in Chicago.