My love for art has always been informed by an interest in how people across time think, feel, celebrate, grieve, and love. I view art as the tangible representation of the metamorphosing, yet essentially unchanging, human heart. Along with literature and music, art expresses the things we care about, the images we want to see, and the ideas that touch us. Seen through this deeply personal lens, a painting becomes so much more than its iconographies and narratives. It becomes a vehicle for emotion. Seeing art in this way requires that, when we step up to an object, we prioritize our visceral rather than our rational response. It requires that we rein in our scholar or historian selves, who can create distance between us and the work by focusing only on style, iconography, material, or composition. Scholarship is important, but the valuable insights we can glean from it don’t always reveal to us everything a work of art has to say. Sometimes it’s equally important to cede to our human selves. How do I feel when I see this painting? How do the colors, forms, expressions, and composition impact me? What emotions can I identify in my viewing experience? Why?
Orazio Gentileschi’s St. Francis Supported by an Angel (about 1600) exemplifies the value of seeing religious art with human eyes. Gentileschi (1563–1639), an early follower of Caravaggio and a widely popular sacred painter in his own right, created the work—one in a series of four depictions of the same scene—at the height of his career in Rome. The painting portrays Saint Francis of Assisi after he miraculously receives the wounds of Christ, called the stigmata. It is a moment of ecstasy, grief, exhaustion, and love. Saint Francis collapses into the arms of the waiting angel, whose grip remains so gentle it barely creases the saint’s habit. Conspicuous against the angel’s rosy cheek, Saint Francis’s pallid complexion highlights his asceticism and physical weariness.
Religious pictures from the Italian Renaissance like Gentileschi’s can seem irreconcilably distant from the types of images we connect with today; they can seem almost like historical artifacts rather than art. So how can we—how should we—experience sacred art as contemporary viewers in a secular world? The answer lies in understanding the underlying sentiment that buttresses Catholic iconography. I don’t need to know Catholic hagiography to be touched by the saint’s expression as he falls into the careful arms of the angel. I don’t need to be familiar with iconography or sacred history to feel the exhaustion and sacrifice of Saint Francis, the adoration and comfort of the angel, the weight of the body in the angel’s gentle arms, the sheer intimacy of the gesture. More broadly in sacred art from 16th-century Italy, I don’t need to know the Bible to empathize with the grief Mary felt when her beloved son was killed, the pain and sorrow Christ felt on the cross, and the hope that the pious harbored. This what I love about this kind of art: how readily these devotional scenes transcend the holy and highlight what is essentially human about the narrative. I can identify with these feelings—fatigue, love, grief, pain, hope—outside the religious context.
I am not a religious person. My understanding of and love for Gentileschi’s painting doesn’t come from a connection with its sacred story, but with its emotional story. I appreciate it for the depth of what it has meant to its viewers over centuries. Standing in front of it reminds me why I study art, and this reminder is echoed each time I try to listen to my emotional reaction to a work. Next time you stand in front of a statue of a Jainist saint, a Buddhist stele, an Egyptian relief, or a Byzantine fresco, take a moment to think about what the object makes you feel.