People who love painting often talk in the present tense about the figures in pictures. In Masaccio’s Pisa Altarpiece, the Virgin sits on a carved marble throne; the Christ child sucks the fingers of his right hand, and takes grapes from his mother’s hand with his left. Or: in Piero’s Resurrection, one of the four soldiers is falling back in dread; the Christ does not fly, but steps heavily from the sepulcher he is still bleeding; it has been a near thing. This way of speaking reflects an important truth about the pictures we use in worship. They are vital performers; they act; they have a liturgical role of their own which completes ours.
Not much is said about this in books on art history. Scholars dwell on materials, the evolution of technique, and perspective. Or more lately, they talk about sociological issues, such as the status of donors, and their probable political motivations. All these things are interesting, but they do not get to the heart of the matter.
Why is there painting in Church at all? Various answers have been given over time. The one which comes first to mind is the narration of Bible stories for the instruction of the illiterate. But the truth is, most of the pictures are not narratives, and the viewers of these pictures were not so illiterate.
Stand yourself in front of some of these—say, the ten panels by Ghiberti on the famous Baptistery doors in Florence. How many of the narratives can you recognize and re-tell? By this exercise one soon finds that to read them the citizens of Florence must have been well versed in scripture, whether they read it from books or learned it from preaching. Now who are the illiterate ones?
But as already noted, most of the pictures in churches do not tell stories. They do make clear a fact which is absolutely elemental: the saints are members of the church too, constantly at worship, with and without us. As the preface to the Eucharist says, when we pray we join our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
Now look up into the Cathedral dome, a few yards away from the Baptistery, and try the frescoes of Vasari. The fact is, without binoculars, and with sunlight coming through the windows, one can hardly see them. How can that be? Why bother putting paint up there? Or look at the worshipers before any of the numerous altars in the place. They have their eyes closed; clearly they are not reading, they are praying. The important thing about the picture is not that we see it, but that we know it is there. It does not create an illusion, but realizes the sober fact that the Church and saints have never ceased praying for us.
One of the many things going on in Church is a vast romance, the sum of all the stories in the Bible, the legends of saints, and the history of the Church in all its congregations. Larger than any epic, it is a romance in which every worshiper can find a place. The variety of stories, and of characters who make them up is one of the greatest riches of Christian culture. But more than that, it is an offering—God’s offering, no less—of every imaginable spiritual companion, ready to guide one along every path of prayer, whether that be lonely and eccentric, or crowded and festive.
You may identify with the ironic and suspicious Jerome, as Piero painted him for Girolamo Amadi. Or you may love those heartbreakingly beautiful angels, watching at Jesus’ baptism. You may move from one to another, through the stages of your life, or the days of a week.
To North American Protestant sensibilities this may seem odd, but if one visits various chapels one finds a distinct personality in each. It not the same thing to pray before a crucifixion as it is to pray before an annunciation; not the same to pray with the rustic Baptist, as to pray with the urbane Augustine.
In the Cathedral of Arezzo is Piero’s Magdalen. She is radiant, her golden hair spread on her white cloak as though just washed. One can hardly wait for her to speak. When she does, her words will be so unexpected, and yet so clear and self-evidently true, that it will redeem whoever hears it. Before such a picture, one waits for God’s true and lively word.
It is worth a long journey to look at pictures in great cathedrals, and small churches—but more than looking at them, to pray in their company. They are more than adornments to a building, and more than memorials to their donors. They are manifestations of God’s presence with his people.