To Live Is Christ





Reaction to "Interior with Monks , c. 1725"
by Alessandro Magnasco (1677-1749) Interior with Monks

It is always an interesting experience for me personally whenever I go to a museum. My untrained, though interested, perspectives on what I am seeing seem to evoke some kind of instinctual, rather than intellectual, reaction. I do not really know enough about the particulars of movements, styles, craft, or purpose to adequately always put into words why some works spark an emotional response, while others simply make little or no impression at all. The psychology of this is interesting, and gives insight into possibly my own state of mind at the time. In my most recent trip to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, whether through weariness or waning sickness, I found very little that grabbed my attention at a quick glance. What typically interested me roused no particular thoughts. As I walked through rooms of portraiture and religious themes I actually felt a little bored. However, as I entered a large room at the end of the passage, my eye caught a scene which sparked interest, interest in the characters, the setting, the atmosphere, the color and the tone. This surprised me, as the seeming gloominess of the painting was not my usual fare. In this brief paper I would like to explore first the quality of art itself, and then seek to understand why this particular piece illustrates this quality.

Art, it seems, is a reflection of the imagination of the artist. It is the presentation of an image or thought that was contained within the mind of this individual, and whose talent to reproduce this image gives the gazer an insight into the mind of the artist, as well as a taste of the insight itself that the artist had in seeking to reproduce this image in a physical medium. Art has as many meanings and purposes as there is variety of meaning and purpose in the human mind. To limit art to only a single stance would be to limit the ability of the person to a single response. Art, at its core, provokes the viewer to see something in a new way, whether through portraying a scene or person no longer able to be seen at all, or by expressing reality in a way which does not necessarily portray simply what we can see with our eyes. Nuances become highlighted, with shapes, colors, individual people or things highlighted so as to point to a more refined way of understanding that which is seen. Sometimes this is not a scene at all, but rather, especially recently, shapes, colors, and forms themselves become highlighted in isolation from any attempt at connecting these with an identifiable subject.

Whether real, augmented reality, or pure imagination, art pushes the viewer to see as the artist sees, to be drawn into a particular philosophy or theology without verbal argument or even, necessarily, cognitive awareness. Art sparks that which is underneath our intellectual selves, creating a connection between the viewer and the artist which mere words can never achieve. This connection, then, can be used in manifold ways to communicate whatever it is the artist desires, intentionally or unintentionally. Art is insight, insight into the world in which we live, and the people who live in it. Art of times past can indeed be more effective insights into history than written documents, not only for the images themselves, but also for the psychology of the time which would produce such an image. To view art is to see that which otherwise might have never been seen, to be pointed towards a more profound way of seeing itself, and to feel the strength of an argument or theology with our entire being.


  • Having far too briefly explored the quality of art itself, it will be illustrative to now explore art in particular, focusing on a specific piece to show how the quality of art can be seen in it. The work which grabbed my eye in my recent visit to the museum is at first glance a scene of raucousness in what should be an otherwise stoic environment. This raucousness, however, is not necessarily of an excited or passionate nature, but is, at first, rather sad and seemingly corrupted. It is the scene of a group of monks, as monochromatic a group of people it appears as the colors used to portray the scene. Color here is quite absent, with it seeming a black and white picture would somehow be more evocative of the scene than the drab, limited colors used. Typically, one can find some splash of brightness, red or yellow, in a dark scene like this, but here there is none to be found. The scene is instead drab at its core. Even the fire in the middle of the room is gray. The details are not emphasized, with the light and shadows reflecting only general impression of the individuals and the scene as a whole.

These are not even monks at prayer or engaged in some kind of "holy" activity. Rather this scene captures a picture of the life within the monastery, between the finely ordered tasks and duties, a probably brief amount of time in which the monks are able to relax. Here this time is seen as being used to warm themselves in front of a large bonfire. More specifically, it seems that these monks have cold feet. The room in which they sit is also quite drab, but more than this it is quite run down, old and shabby, not just simple and sparse. The chimney leaks, with the smoke of the fire flowing out into the room. Though there are windows, these are not particularly transparent, with the gray of the room on even them not allowing any view of the outside. One senses this monastery had seen its peak decades, even centuries, prior to our visiting it.

Although initially appearing raucous and monochromatic, lengthier examination evokes a different perspective. These are not monks at play, or even showing delight at all. There is a weariness about them all, a sense that their very soul seems weary, as they seek to bring some warmth to their lives. At first, one senses this to be a noisy scene, a celebration of the end of the day and a time for relaxation. Rather, however, than finding it noisy, I realized the quietness of the scene, the only sounds being the crackling of the fire and the rustling of slow movement. There is no interaction between these monks, neither talking nor touching. These are individuals here, involved in their own thoughts and interests. The more one looks, the more one sees the real individuality of this seemingly monochromatic gathering. Each is involved in their own pursuit, revealing personality and life within this drab scene. This gathering as a whole seems to be a collection of men with different interests, with their pursuits in this free time revealing distinctiveness. In the middle we have those focused on warming themselves, standing in different positions, at different stages of arriving, leaving, or resting. Off to the side we find two monks engaged in "holy" activities, reading and praying. On the other side we find a content older friar taking a nap. In the front we find the only little bit of activity. One young, maybe new, monk is occupying himself by watching a cat play with the white cord which binds the monks robe. Opposite him, we see another monk, one whose posture is seemingly tense, with his arms outstretched, turned awkwardly facing the other monks. In the rear corner a monk, who if I were a monk here would probably be me, gazing quietly out the dirty window into a scene we can only imagine. The personalities shown here are surprising in their diversity, adding color to the scene without color.

Yet, the drab atmosphere seems pervasively oppressive. These monks, Fransciscans it appears, do not reflect in their situation a position I would like to join. This scene, painted in a time of great decline of monasteries, evokes a sadness. Is this their image of holiness? It is drab, colorless, sanctity seemingly being defined as their souls being pressed down. For although their individuality stands out, it seems an individuality which must fight for the barest expression, and which is fighting a losing battle. One can foresee the young monk in a short time no longer interested in the cat, or the monk in the back no longer interested in the outside. This is a scene which for me represents the theological atmosphere of the time. Is this scene what Christ intended for his people?

In another part of the museum we find the picture of Saint Francis in Prayer by Francisco de Zurbaran. Here the sanctity is revealed in a contented, even delighted, countenance of a monk, a clean monk, at prayer, with a clear image of nature behind him. It is sparse, but clean, earnest, hopeful, joyous. In contrast to the founder we find his followers centuries later, sparse still but dirty and sad. Their personalities shine through the dismal scene, but seem stifled by this colorless environment. I find myself sad for these men, wishing they could enjoy the life of a full palette of color.

Yet certainly, Magnasco portrayed the reality of a monastery during this time, a time in which the church was needing to find itself again. Through his portrayal of this scene, emotions, thoughts, feelings, were evoked in me which would certainly not have been simply through reading about the state of Italian monasteries of the 18 th century. This is a scene which I have never experienced, but yet I can identify with the yearnings of these men, some of them at least, to find God. Their time, and their quest, placed them in the scene of this painting, drab, colorless, dirty, stifling. But their personalities came out, and certainly the Spirit was still active in the life of those who truly did live this scene. The question, of course, can be raised about Magnasco's intentions in this painting, whether it meant to convey a message or whether it was simply a scene which interested him. For me, however, the simple portrayal of the scene, with or without deeper intentions, engaged my own imagination, letting me participate in the imagination of Magnasco and in the lives of those he sought to portray. It prompted thoughts of the theology which would give rise to such a scene, and drew me in emotionally as I gazed upon it. In doing this, Magnasco revealed a world to me which is otherwise inaccessible, and in doing this added to my own thoughts and perspectives on church history and on church present. That kind of provocation it seems is what art is all about.

To Die Is Gain
Back to whither you came
Patrick Oden,  yeoman raven master