|Who do you see in the picture?|
. . . though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Phillipians 2:6-8)
The Infinite God, St. Paul tells us, willingly took on finite humanity in the Incarnation. Because we believe this, Catholics have always understood that humble and material things can serve as channels for greater, immaterial things. The chief examples, aside from the God-Man Jesus Christ Himself, are the Sacraments, which are created things that serve as vehicles of God’s Grace. We also find the same principle at work, albeit on a less exalted level, in art, music, and other works of the imagination.
In recent posts about Star Trek [here] and about biblical films such as Noah [here] I have discussed the power of images and other works that appeal to the imagination to mislead and confuse. Such things can also enlighten us, of course, if they are done properly, and deepen our understanding (which is why the Catholic faith has always had such a large audio-visual component). I recently came across an interesting example of an imaginative work being used in a more positive manner. Two imaginative works, actually, because it involves a renaissance fresco appearing in a modern work of fiction.
The book is michael O’Brien’s apocalyptic novel Father Elijah. I’m thinking in particular of a scene in which Fr. Elijah himself and a friend are looking at a wall painting in the Cathedral of Orvieto:
Elijah went over to another mural.
His eyes were drawn to the central figure of the image, a figure of Christ. How strange, he thought, to see a representation of the Lord with the figure of Satan whispering in His ear,and his arm penetrating His robes. Is that Christ’s hand or the devil’s that emerges from the folds of cloth?
It was not a literal representation of a scriptural scene, he concluded; although it might be the artist’s imaginative rendering of the temptation in the desert? But there was something out of character in the way Christ leaned into Satan’s embrace and listened with such attention.
He stared at it for a long time. Suddenly, the meaning of the mural became clear, like a scene viewed through lenses revolving into focus. The blurred shapes of reality drew together into a sharp, piercing landscape of moral disaster.
The figure held in the devil’s embrace was not Christ but the Antichrist.
Elijah understood why Don Matteo had wanted him to see it. Now he knew why the old friar would not tell him the reason for his request. Matteo had wanted Elijah to discover the secret of the mural himself, and in the process, to observe the mechanics of perception.
I immediately knew the painting by it's description, because I had used a picture of it to illustrate a blog post last winter (called, appropriately enough, "'Choice' And The Father Of Lies", here). The painting creates a vivid picture of Satan's usual modus operandi: evil working in the guise of good. The striking image gets the message across much more memorably than a simple explanation (hence the old saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words").
But there's more to it than that. Notice that the characters looking at the mural above don't at first realize what they're seeing; neither did I, only it took me a lot longer to figure it out than it does Fr. Elijah. But that's part of what makes the painting so effective: we think we're seeing Jesus, only to realize that we're actually looking at his opposite. We are not merely seeing a depiction of deception, we are in fact deceived by the artist's work: we experience deception itself, "in the flesh" as it were. That's a powerful lesson. That's why, in O'Brien's novel, Don Matteo wanted Fr. Elijah to experience it first-hand.
Very often our faith is hindered by emotional barriers: those of us who are believers sometimes give in to doubt, even though we've experienced God's presence; unbelievers often are incapable of accepting any evidence at all because of such barriers. A well-crafted work of visual or imaginative art can often weaken those barriers by creating a new emotional experience, and so lead to a new or deeper understanding, while bad or disordered art can lead us further into darkness. What we see, hear, or read can make all the difference.