Seeing Anew

Dean J. Scott Miller


I always make it a point when traveling to visit art museums because I am guaranteed to walk away with new perspectives that complement the experience of being on the road. In March I was presenting a paper at Harvard and stole an hour to visit the newly renovated Art Museums building. One of the first things to catch my eye, and then to recapture it after I wandered among some examples of humanity’s greatest art works, were rough, Romanesque, sculptured stone capitals from the 12th century. They were mounted on a wall, above the floor level, elevated as they were when they supported massive beams in a French abbey. What immediately struck me were the eyes of the figures, holes carved deep into the limestone so that the effect was pure black shadow.

screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-1-43-56-pmThere is something magical about human eyes. They seem to be a portal to the soul, unlocking the mysteries of the heart. From my ground-level perspective all the hollow eyes seemed to follow me back and forth as I looked up at the carved figures. One capital depicted Jesus, flanked by an angel, meeting two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and His sidelong-glancing eye seemed squarely focused on me, as if Christ had singled me out in His peripheral vision. In turn, I felt compelled to peer into the seemingly eternal depth of that deep-set eye.

In my course on Asian literary traditions I invoke the Hindu concept of darshan: observation as worship. Darshan combines the sense of visual wonder and awe (that comes, say, when we stumble upon a beautiful sunset) with the notion that, as a kind of divine gift, the self-concealing gods may at times allow us a glimpse of themselves. In other words, we may sometimes be blessed to notice things of which we have been otherwise unaware, and in the act of seeing something or someone we may engage in a form of worship that brings us closer to the divine.

The story of Emmaus is an example of Christian darshan, wherein the disciples, at first clueless as they walked and talked with a stranger, suddenly received from that stranger the gift of seeing him as Christ in His full resurrected glory. I experienced my own moment of darshan while gazing upon the stone carving of Christ. Staring into that eye, trying to discover what was hidden in its depths, I suddenly “saw” Christ gazing upon each of us with a love that, in its transforming power, allows Him to see the deepest corners of our sorrowing hearts and recognize the divinity hiding behind our mortal disguises.

screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-1-44-01-pmSince that singular moment I now find myself drawn to eyes in paintings. Just around the corner from the dean’s office in the Joseph F. Smith Building is an alcove temporarily housing artist Brian Kershisnik’s Down from the Cross, an original, wall-size oil painting depicting angelic hosts surrounding the mortal companions of Christ as they lower His body to the ground (see p. 14). Texture jumps from the paint when the angled light shines just right, and the paleness of Christ’s skin stands in ghostly contrast to everything else. The central character who confronts us most directly with her eyes is Mary Magdalene, from whose black orbs tears stream and in which we see the void of despair. She is staring vacantly at the man in front of her, presumably Peter, who is helping others lift the body of Christ down from the cross. Each figure is glancing everywhere and nowhere, like a flock of sheep whose shepherd has vanished. This seemingly hopeless scene once troubled me, but having experienced darshan while viewing the medieval sculpture at Harvard, I can now see the divine glory latent in Christ’s pale body in this painting, and I know that Mary’s tears will shortly be wiped away by her resurrected Shepherd.

As we stumble upon art during the regular course of life, both in faraway places and around the corner, we may come to see it from the varying perspectives of our own evolving paradigms and perceptions. When we collect and display art in our home or workplace, we might remember that perhaps its greatest value is not so much in what it tells the world about us but, rather, in how it serves as a kind of practicum. As we come upon art in the very mundane circumstances of daily life, wandering to and from our errands, we may be blessed to suddenly see that art in a fresh light, from a radically new perspective, or to have it come to influence the quotidian task we are about and elevate it to an errand of beauty, or a source of even greater vision.

Humanities Magazine Fall 2016 Full Issue