Friday, November 14, 2014

el greco | the miracle of christ healing the blind

In the flow of Advent scriptures, today's selections are the first that have nothing to do with mountains and hills. Though we do lead with topography - Lebanon turned into a fertile field, and the fertile field like a forest. 

Nor are we feasting any more.

What does carry on from before is that we stay in Isaiah and Matthew. And the theme that continues to play is the promise of better times to come. Miraculously better - the deaf will hear, the blind will see, the humble and needy will rejoice, and the house of Jacob will see the holiness of God and gain understanding. Too, justice will be dealt out to the ruthless, the mockers, those who bear false witness: summed up with that unsparing phrase "all who have an eye for evil will be cut down" - like something from a gangster movie, or a song by The Lanfordaires or Moby.

The New Testament selection continues in Matthew, and specifically connects Jesus to Isaiah's prophecy the "the eyes of the blind will see." 

"God With Us" presents El Greco's rendition of the scene. I've never looked carefully at this painting, so for now I'll record only initial impressions, and mostly questions. I think it's important to just look at a new piece of art, spend some time with it, before digging into the commentary and having it all explained. Same with scripture, come to think of it. First it's important to see, and to wonder.

Even in calling up the image on my computer so I can see it nice and big and clear, I notice that it lives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. What a tease: I was in New York a week and a half ago, and had no idea. Guess I have to go back, now.

Because truly, it's so hard to take in a work of art through a photograph, a reproduction in a book or on a screen. I never would have fallen into the world of Claud Lorraine's "Sermon On The Mount" if I didn't encounter it, taller than me and ten feet wide, hanging in the stillness of The Frick Gallery: now, in four trips to Manhattan, I've visited The Frick seven times, and settled down in front of the Lorraine every time.

Before you read what I write about the picture, you might want to look closely at it yourself for a bit. (You can click on the above image to enlarge it, and then zoom in on that. Or search in Google images for a Flickr version like this one, which you can zoom in on.)

There's Jesus, most prominent. My eye is drawn to him because of the vivid colour of his garments, and the detail and texture in them - it if was a photograph, this is the place where the photographer set his focus. Also, he's in that spot, a third of the way into the picture - indeed, his face is also a third of the way from the top - that's naturally what takes prominence in a composition, who knows why. And then I look at what Jesus is looking at, the man in orange half-kneeling at his feet. Jesus is looking at him, his right hand touches his eyes (in an unusual gesture - it's not one I've seen the healing evangelists use, palm open, but almost like Jesus is taking something from the man's eye. A speck, a log?). Jesus' other hand, with its long, long fingers, extends gently along the man's forearm, and the shape of their arms forms a triangle, a diamond, an arrow-head that focuses all the energy of the encounter on the man's face.

To the right, a cluster of people. The man facing away from us seems to be gesturing toward Jesus like he's their tour guide, or as though they've all been talking about Jesus and "look what he's doing now." Only, the gang with him aren't looking at Jesus at all: all eyes seem to be on the couple in the foreground. Are they looking at the woman's rather eye-catching blouse? Or is that a black man she's with, and that's some kind of a scandal? Certainly the man in purple and green looks worked up - what's with that hand gesture, like he's trying to stop them from something, or he's grabbing for them. The two men behind him are equally intent on the couple down front. Though the most prominent face in that group, head and shoulders above the rest (and better lit) is looking at Jesus and the blind man. And on the extreme right of the painting, a woman (?) gazing much more softly, contemplatively at the couple - or perhaps her eyes are even closed?

I'm curious about the couple, as well. The scantily clad woman isn't looking at Jesus, but at something beyond the frame, to our left. The man with her seems to be holding her back, protecting her or holding her back from something we can't see - though I'm not sure, he may be looking at the man being healed. Who are they? Why has el Greco placed them front and centre?

Immediately above them in the painting is a very curious pair, sitting on a low step - or hovering above it? You can even see the tracings of the stonework through them. It's almost as if they were painted in after, an afterthought, and not very thoroughly. But I doubt that: their translucence must be intentional. Are they really there? Is their interaction happening at a different time? Are they ghostly or angelic presences? Memory, somehow? And when I first look at them, I suddenly wonder if that is also a depiction of the event described in the title, with a pink-robed Jesus healing an older blind man in a blue garment. But the healer here isn't Jesus - clean shaven, shorter hair, different clothes. What sort of echo of the main event is this? Something happening "in the heavenlies," some unseen spiritual transaction unseen by anyone but us? Or is this some suggestion of the disciples, or even we disciples centuries later, fulfilling Jesus words that "these works shall you do, and greater"?

And now that I've focused in on the details of the centre of the frame, I pay attention to the little figures in the distance, maybe four people running into the building, or down a roadway beyond the building? With two white horses pulling a wagon in the same direction, framed by the rounded arch. Where are they going? What's in there?

And now I step back to look at the rest of the picture, and remember the tall young man on the left, bare back and pink-red garment, pointing way up high, off to the left, looking even more like a tour guide. Though I'm not sure anyone's paying him any attention. Except us, and we can't see what he's pointing at. Only that he seems to be missing the main event. Like everybody in the world of the painting, except the blonde fellow at the top of the clump of people on the right side. I'm beginning to feel like he's the most important character here, the only one noticing the miracle taking place right in the middle of all the fuss and energy. His simple, innocent face, with nothing but glorious blue sky and painterly white clouds above him, and all his quiet attention on Jesus doing something astonishing and unnoticed. Unnoticed, except by him, and by us.  We're privileged. We're in on it. We see.

Indeed, we even see what nobody else sees, that mysterious, intimate encounter in the centre of the picture, which is maybe another healing, another blind man about to see.

Perhaps this painting is all about seeing, and not seeing. Which seems appropriate.

I'll wait until later to get Google to help me see what else is here. For now I just want it to be a mystery.  "Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart."


By the way, when I first searched online for the image reproduced in the "God With Us" book, here's the one I found. Apparently el Greco painted this story more than once. Fascinating how the same painter renders the same story so differently, even in a painting that is superficially so similar.