Performing Beauty: The Liturgical Theology of Beholding

We live in the digital age; the era of Snap chat, Facebook, Instagram and CGI. This technology is quite literally in the palm of our hands and can present us with images of anywhere, anytime, anyplace while we go absolutely nowhere. “The image becomes a world and the world is made into an image.” (Marion, 46) When this occurs, the images we see are given to us and as a result, our world is given to us in such a way that all we truly have is the image that we see. (Marion, 50) What we get in return for offering our gaze to these images is nothing more than a screen; there is no gaze of the other. Quite often what the images we look upon, either voluntarily or involuntarily, do is ultimately shape us and if we are not careful, we may succumb to idolatrous behavior where seeing becomes being and we watch for the soul pleasure of seeing without any limitation or restriction. (Marion, 50)
These images that are presented to us, inform us of what society says is important; things such as luxury cars, big houses, expensive jewelry, exotic vacations and fit bodies. All of which, according to these images, create laughter, happiness and joy. With the image, the viewer sees the satisfaction of his desire, thus himself. Every image is an idol or it isn’t seen. (Marion, 51) However, it is important to ask if these images really provoke feelings of happiness and leave us feeling uplifted and enriched. If they do, how long do those feelings last? From a personal standpoint, these images often do the opposite and I come away feeling inadequate, unhappy or just plain melancholy. Based on my own experiences, I cannot look upon and contemplate Christian art, such as the Icon or Fresco, the same way I look upon modern digital images because doing so would be a disservice to the art.
In order to truly see and behold these Christian images, the proper disposition and formation is required. Such formation takes place within us in two important ways; learning to see the invisible in the visible and the resemblance in the dissemblance within the art. In regard to the invisible, the image it reveals is the image of symbolic knowledge of the gap between what is seen and the original’s invisible attributes and substance. (Marion, 55) Dissemblance requires us to pay attention to the details and strangeness within the piece because in doing so, it encourages further contemplation of what is being represented in that which it does not resemble. “Dissemblant figures, the art of memory and the sort of freely associative references sit comfortably together and suggest that color, place and matter cannot be reduced to simple descriptive attributes but act figuratively, in the sense of indicating that which they do not resemble.” (Reddaway, 121) Two works of art that emphasize the importance of these aspects of formation are Fra Angelico’s “Saint Dominic and the Cross” and “Noli Me Tangere”.

Fra Angelico, Saint Dominic with the Crucifix, c. 1436–43, Convent of San Marco Cloister

If you take a cursory look at the image of “Saint Dominic and the Cross” what you would notice are the obvious figures depicted such as Christ during His crucifixion and Saint Dominic. It is important to note that each of these are significant but without the proper formation to see the invisible and interpret the dissemblance this is all you are able to see. However, with the proper formation what is revealed in this image far exceeds our expectations. When we are able to see the invisible, what is revealed in this image is beauty, love and adoration. Beginning with the shape, it resembles a key hole and gives the impression of peering through a closed door while at the same time proclaiming that Christ is the key that opens the door to eternal life. At the base of the cross, we see the stump of a tree which is symbolic of the tree of life in the Garden of Eden cut down when Adam and Eve committed original sin which carried the punishment of death. The wooden cross, although dissemblant from a tree, allows us to see the Cross as the New Tree of Life which reminds us of God’s gift of salvation and eternal life offered in Christ’s crucifixion. We see Saint Dominic on bended knee adoring Christ, clinging to the Cross and looking up toward Christ and leaning in as if he is going to drink from the streams of blood flowing down the cross. Once again, the dissemblance of this image to Holy Communion, figuratively describes the Eucharist. Christ on the cross is looking down on Saint Dominic with a look of love and the hint of a smile upon His face conveys His pure unconditional love for humanity and power of His Paschal Mystery.

Fra Angelico, Noli Me Tangere, c. 1436–43, Convent of San Marco, Cell 1

Utilizing this same formation to look upon the “Noli Me Tangere” we find a work of art that is abundant with meanings. If we begin with the shape of the piece, we get the impression that we are looking through a window into a garden. In the back of the piece, we see a fence which reinforces the image of a garden. On the left, we see the open tomb and notice the dissemblance of the opening of the tomb in that it is shaped like a door way. This shape is symbolic of the doorway to a Dominican Cell and at the same time it is symbolic of death’s doorway that every person will walk through one day. With Christ’s resurrection, the door has been removed and now death, which we were once bound to, is now only a transition. As our eyes move to the image of Mary Magdalene, we see her on bended knee with her arms open as if to greet Christ which reminds us of the importance of humbly coming before Christ on bended knee with our arms open and ready to receive Him. At last, our eyes come to rest on the figure of Christ. Beginning with His feet we are drawn to His wounds that bear a resemblance to the flowers in the garden depicting the beauty of Christ’s passion. The positions of Christ’s feet give the impression that He is floating above the ground which depicts the perfection of Christ’s glorified body. Christ’s hand is gesturing to Mary Magdalene as He looks upon her gently so as to offer her comfort even though she is unable to touch Him. This reminds us of Christ’s ability to comfort us during our own struggles. Finally, Christ is carrying a scythe which reminds us that Christ is the way, the truth and the life and in the last judgement He will separate the wheat from the chaff.
To look upon these works in an iconic way, as an act of beholding, requires the proper formation. Through learning to see the invisible in the visible and the figurative resemblance in the dissemblance, we learn to see the gaze of the other looking back at us. It becomes an encounter rather than a viewing; the screen disappears and we are offered something that exceeds our very being. We are offered and encounter with God.