Over the summer I've been gradually updating some of the material of a module I'm teaching in Spring 2011. "Jesus Through the Centuries" is one of those modules that cries out for creative experiences of learning, encourages new approaches to reflection, explores radically different media for making theological statements, and allows each student to think more widely and deeply about who Jesus is. Film, painting, sculpture, music, poetry, and iconography provide rich and profound challenges to a theology that is often embedded, maybe at times imprisoned, by words.
Part of the course I am developing relates to the incarnation. What I find remarkable is the concentration in the tradition on questions of how. How Jesus could be both God and human, and the sophisticated complexity of various formulations of words in an attempt to capture, contain and convey truth. It isn't that the how question is unimportant - just that it isn't the only question. And it isn't that I have a quarrel with words, I use them as fragments of attempted precision myself. But there are alternatives to words in the human impulse to portray and celebrate the great Johannine vision, 'the Word became flesh and dwelt among us'. So I've been looking rather closely at paintings of the incarnation, almost always centred on the image of Mary and the infant Jesus.
And while the infant is usually and naturally central in the painting, the mother is an equally crucial and essential image, expressed with reverent care, portrayed in intimate detail, flowing as a dominant presence around the infant. And what has surprised me, in my admittedly limited reading and study of a number of these paintings, is the extraordinary availability in painted art, of a different theological grammar and vocabulary.
Now this is a thought I am developing, but as one example of what I am after - I have been studying the body language of the mother and what that might imply about the child. Especially the facial expression. Sad, serene, joyful, composed, in prayer eyes closed, in wonder eyes wide open, head bowed in adoration - or resignation...and so on.
I came across the ink drawing of Rogier Van Der Weyden, now held at the Louvre. It is exquisite, a softly lined and shaded sketch that says more than any finished oil, a most beautiful theological statement of purity and feminine beauty, and while the head is bowed, the eyes are open, the face is strong, and her attention is focused off stage, contemplative yet concentrated. What is going on? Just as in film the look off-stage is towards that which the viewer cannot see, but must imagine through the facial expression of the actor, so in this sketch we have to imagine what it is she gazes at in that way. Artists know very well that facial expression and the focus of the eyes is deeply suggestive to the viewer's imagination. "The Head of the Virgin" is inclined towards ...what? Depends whether this is before the annunciation, after it but before the birth, or after the child is born. Before the annunciation, a young woman thoughtful and composed; after the annunciation resigned to a future to which she willingly surrendered; after the birth, wonder, even adoration but qualified by an expression of sadness?
And my question is - knowing the Christian story, and being familiar with the nativity and birth narratives, and belonging to a Christian community of faith, what theological conclusions are drawn from that face, that attentiveness, that focus off-stage? And how important is our imagination as a nourishment of what we already believe, and an enrichment of how we think of Jesus?