The Art of Lent: Contemplation

[Editor’s Note: For more information on Sister Wendy and The Art of Lent series, see our Series Launch.]

 

Our contemplative journey through The Art of Lent with Sister Wendy continues as we direct our attention and imagination to the raptured saints of Raphael and the domestic contemplatives of Vermeer. In both selections, whether in conditions of suffering or mundanity, we are reminded of the Holy Light that reveals and transforms. [1]

Saint Catherine of Alexandria (Raphael, c. 1507)

The figure of St Catherine evokes haunting narratives of a young woman who is scourged, starved, tortured, and eventually beheaded for her faith. Yet it is the ecstasy of the saint in her contemplation of God – an anticipation of a blessed life beyond death – that becomes focal for Raphael’s rendition. The serpentine figure of Saint Catherine spirals toward the light in rapture, but the delicacy of her gestures and the calm resolve of her gaze lend the moment a stillness that seems to step out of time. What seems less real than the luminous sky or her vibrant dress is the wooden wheel in the shadows. [2] The instrument of her martyrdom becomes a furnishing for the saint to rest her arm. The lethal spikes are dulled. Like the Plato of Raphael’s School of Athens (c. 1511), the inclination of the figure is upward and eternal; there is an eros for the infinite. [3] The sfumato face and dainty hands of the saint serve to etherealise her body and the disarmed torture device recalls the prophetic image of swords being beaten into ploughshares.

But what are we to make of this Renaissance vision of sanctity? To modern eyes the scene is likely to appear remote, even saccharine. Closer to our own sensibilities are the Holy Fools of Russian folk art, the mad prophets of German expressionism, or perhaps the tortured souls of Bergman, Dreyer, and Scorsese. In our times a decisive ‘Nein!’ has been sounded against the theologia gloriae. Yet as perilous as it is to evade the reality of death, suffering, and ambiguity, the good news of God in Christ is precisely that new life has been made possible through the crucified and risen one. The figure of Catherine opens to us a vital way of seeing our lives and the lives of others. Will we continue to see our environment under the aspect of privation and violence, or will we see as Catherine sees, under the aspect of God’s eternity? This is the seeing of Saint Paul and Boethius in prison, it is the seeing of Etty Hillesum and Richard Wurmbrand in their labour camps. In her refreshing (and ironically subversive) selection of Raphael’s Catherine of Alexandria (c. 1507), Sister Wendy invites us to consider anew the hope of eternal communion with God and the resurrection of the flesh. The agonised bodies of Francis Bacon and the erotic grotesqueries of Egon Schiele may image our world under the aspect of privation and violence, but we will with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory and be transformed into his image.

 

The Young Woman with a Water Jug (Vermeer, c. 1662)

Rather different to the raptured saints of Raphael are the domestic contemplatives of Vermeer. We turn now to the opening piece of Sister Wendy’s Lenten reflections on the theme of contemplation: The Young Woman with a Water Jug (c. 1662). In so doing we turn from the conditions of suffering to the conditions of the mundane. It is unsurprising that Bacon can say of Vermeer that ‘he doesn’t mean anything, he has no significance’, for Vermeer embodies a naturalistic fidelity to the everyday. [4] His collected works are few in number and small in format. The secret of his paintings is of course the secret of their subject matter. Vermeer excels at making visible what is invisible to routine or cynical perception, namely, the arrival of grace. It is in the quietude of an ordinary morning ritual – a woman performing her ablutions – that a pearly light dawns. Such ‘Holy Light’, as Sister Wendy so jubilantly relates, ‘shimmers on the woman’s headdress, glimmers on the copper of the jug and ewer, glimmers with ineffable softness on the walls’. [5]

The private room that is depicted is a recurring setting in Vermeer’s modest corpus, but unlike the claustrophobic spaces of Piranesi this is a space open to grace. Indeed, this permeability to grace is not only a feature of the space in morning light but of the confines of the young woman’s domestic vocation. As with Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (c. 1656), we observe a level of reflection on the tension between the contemplative and active life. The Young Woman with a Water Jug is a beautiful reconciliation of these tendencies. The young woman attends to the epiphany of light on the window while also holding a jug of water – an element of her domestic routine. On her right is the object of her vision and on her left is the symbolised purity of her life, the water being a symbol of cleansing in this Dutch tradition. The visual suggestion appears to be that we become like what we behold. ‘If your eye is healthy your whole body will be full of light’ (Matt. 6:22). Vermeer, like Raphael, is concerned to convey a new way of seeing the world opened through the practice of contemplation. As we make our way through the wilderness of Lent let us remember to fix our gaze on the light of the world so that we might be changed into his likeness and reflect this light to others.

 


Image Credits

Raphael, Saint Catherine of Alexandriahttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Raffael_stcatherina.jpg.

Vermeer, The Young Woman with a Water Jughttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johannes_Vermeer_-_Young_Woman_with_a_Water_Jug_-_WGA24662.jpg.

Vermeer, Christ in the House of Martha and Maryhttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johannes_(Jan)_Vermeer_-_Christ_in_the_House_of_Martha_and_Mary_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

 

[1] Sister Wendy Beckett, The Art of Lent: A Painting a Day from Ash Wednesday to Easter (London: SPCK, 2017), 26.

[2] ‘Figura Serpentinata’, The National Gallery, accessed February 23, 2019, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/glossary/figura-serpentinata.

[3] Beckett, The Art of Lent, 30.

[4] Francis Bacon, as quoted in ‘Vermeer’s Mystique: Is it Overrated?’, Essential Vermeer, accessed February 23, 2019, http://www.essentialvermeer.com/popular_works.html#.XHGYCy2cbGI.

[5] Beckett, The Art of Lent, 26.

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