Two books recently bought. One huge, as in mega-big. I didn't look at the dimensions when I clicked. (36x43x3). Don't care. It's a coffee table book, which could also mean put legs on it and it is big enough for a coffee table! But it is a gorgeously produced, outrageously sized, sumptuously heavy, ridiculously unwieldy, impossible to read in bed, but impossible not to read, study of Johannes Vermeer and His World. And the price is £15 from Amazon! There are 10 posters for framing included and I reckon any half decent print shop would charge you more than £15 for one of them, let alone the book and the set.
There is one painting in particular I want to spend some time with - Vermeer's interpretation of the Martha and Mary story. Of which more in a later post. But this volume is a labour of love; each of the confirmed Vermeer paintings is reproduced, with good background notes, exposition of key details, and building up to an education in the understanding and appreciation of artistic development from gift to genius. What becomes progressively clearer in studying the paintings is the way the eyes of the subjects are portrayed. How they look, the direction and focus, the use of light, each draw the attention of the viewer, and thus influence the way we look, and point us towards what we ought to see. In other words the artist is providing his own hermeneutic, and with Vermeer that includes provoking and directing emotional attentiveness "by rendering visible particular moods and feelings". One of the unmistakable responses to a Vermeer masterpiece is precisely this, the artist setting the emotional climate in which the painting can best be appropriated, and doing so by taking control of how the viewer looks and what it is the artist wants the viewer to notice.
Exegesis of a text requires, and is inevitably accompanied by, a set of hermeneutical assumptions, strategies, principles - which are themselves influenced by the capacity of the text to speak for itself. There is an equivalent process, when the text is not in words but in image. Visibility, seeing and reading the non-verbal text, is with an eye to apprehending the truth, the is-ness made visible and comprehensible not in words but in that emotional and spiritual intuition of the viewer that recognises the rightness, the fittingness, the yes factor in what is being viewed.
This is an important resource for theological nourishment, as well as a crucial insight for theological understanding. Much hermeneutical activity which surrounds the exegesis of words composed into texts, strongly focuses on meaning and truth. The equivalent hermeneutical activity in art focuses on the response of the viewer to beauty, and the search to understand the process by which the apprehension of beauty opens the mind to truth of another order. This painting is a pictorial exegesis of a gospel incident that has been deeply influential in the development of Christian spirituality, especially the unhelpful distinction between the active and the contemplative life. Vermeer portrays both women as having Jesus' attention, and there is little sense of one being preferred to the other. The active and the contemplative, the kitchen and the prayer stool, food and conversation, Martha and Mary, are equally disciples, and feeding the hungry Jesus is as important as listening to Jesus' words. Dag Hammarskjold, that surprisingly perceptive Christian and Secretary General of the UN, understood the given and creative tension of Christian obedience, that "the way to holiness lies through the world of action".
And Thomas Merton, who to my knowledge didn't write on this gospel incident, though one of the greatest apologists for the contemplative life in silence and solitude, nevertheless linked these spiritual disciplines of passive waiting (Mary) to the richer textured realities of active obedience in the world (Martha), and to demonstable Christian practices which embody and enflesh the virtues of peacemaking, love and social compassion. His finest writing is found in the collision, or perhaps the conflation, of contemplative and political theology, the fusion in his spirituality of prayer and protest, the insistence that true communion with God and love for the world are to be found both in the inward cohesion of a contemplative community, and in the outreaching and scattering of that community in Christian witness to a broken God-loved world. And it is not unimportant that some of his most telling statements are not in words, but in photographs, poems and calligraphic art. And some of his most piercing images are literary and in his best known essays. For Merton, word and image are equally effective conduits of those truths that shape and inspire patterns of behaviour and practice that are demonstrably Christian.