The phrase “to be is to be perceived” (Marion, 52) indicates our deepest desire: to be known in the sight of another. This desire is writ large in today’s modern technological phenomenons such as YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat, but most people will admit that there is something missing, something more to life than likes and shares and views. This encounter of one another on a deeper spiritual level – or indeed, an encounter with Christ – can be likened to our perception of art. To truly see a piece of art, it’s helpful to know its historical or geographical context, and to engage with the piece in a spirit of curiosity: what is unusual about this piece? How is Christ speaking to me through it?
In the case of Noli me tangere, painted by Blessed Fra Angelico, the context of the original painting is foundationally important. It is one of many frescos in San Marco Convent in Florence, where paintings grew in spiritual complexity by the room assignments of novice to professed priests. Noli me tangere was painted on the wall of the first room by the stairs, a cleric’s private cell (Reddaway, 111). At San Marco Convent, common spaces were adorned with art as well.
The artistic atmosphere served as a prayerful environment to lead the community closer to Christ. Indeed, “One can affect the state of the soul through the disposition of the body: physicality influencing spirituality” (Reddaway, 131). Our faith is innately grounded in the physical, created world, and undoubtedly shapes us as we grow and become. Used well, the created world and our history in it can and will bring us to a deeper encounter with one another.
“Angelico uses dissemblance to open up the image to contemplation and exegesis by disturbing the viewer” (Reddaway, 120). By identifying the unusual features of the image, we encounter deeper theological truths. In Noli me tangere, the flowers, for example, symbolize both blossoming and bleeding: through Christ’s death, the Christian is reborn into new life.
The tomb’s exit is very square and door-shaped, teaching us that the Christian disciple must enter into the sacrificial discipline of prayer (in the monk’s case, into the cloister). In rising from an encounter with Christ through prayer, they, too, will rise with Christ into eternity.
The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio is a part of a series of three paintings: The Inspiration of St. Matthew hangs in the center and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew hangs to the right. It was commissioned for a St. Matthew-themed chapel, and together, the three images assist the viewer in accompanying the holy apostle on his life journey. The saints are incredible models for us in both their radical presence (in their time and space), and their willingness to lead others to Christ.
What’s unique about The Calling of St. Matthew? Though all three figures wear Renaissance-era clothing, the story remains intact: Christ, on the right, calls Matthew, the tax collector, to follow him. Is Matthew the bearded man in the black hat, pointing to himself, or is Matthew the young man with his face bowed to the table? Perhaps Christ called them both, and only Matthew (whichever figure he may be) responded in faith.
Because we are not currently at the San Marco Convent or in a chapel dedicated to St. Matthew, we can only experience art through digital media. “The image, closed off to its original, thus no longer has any reality other than itself” (Marion, 49). Even so, we can encounter Christ here. By default, we are passive viewers of our environment, and of art, but we are also challenged to truly see the image, and in turn, to be seen (Marion, 51).
This brings us to our initial claim: our deepest desire is to be known in the sight of another. By encountering one another (and ultimately in seeking an encounter with Christ) we must be seen by one another. We must share our stories, our pasts, and meet one another in a spirit of curiosity: what is unusual about this person? How is Christ speaking to me through him or her? In seeing and serving one another, we become more fully known, and more fully human.
Jean-Luc Marion, The Crossing of the Visible, 2004.
Chloë R. Reddaway, Transformations in Persons and Paint: Visual Theology, Historical Images, and the Modern Viewer, 2016.