Performing Art

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.

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