We all have imaginations, but rarely have actual “visions,” such as what Francis of Assisi is said to have experienced during his 40-day fast in the mountains at Verna in Tuscany. So rare that when such experiences come, they take with them William James wrote, “a tremendous sense of power and inner illumination.”
At the same time, they are extremely difficult to share. And it can be hard to connect with our normal lives, where they tend to clash.
The art of painting has been the oldest – and probably still is – a way to connect profound experience with everyday life, and thus to maintain the authority of visions, the unknown, even maybe even death.
This very small picture – it is about 27 square inches – by author Jan van Eyck (c. 1395-1441) one-of-a-kind describes a vision Francis experienced in the early 13th century, near the end of his life. Francis saw a man with six wings fixed to a cross. “He was absolutely amazed,” his letter writer wrote, Thomas of Celano. “He couldn’t fathom what this vision could mean.”
The meaning of the vision becomes clearer when wounds, or marks, appear on the parts of Francis’ body (his feet and hands) where Jesus was nailed to the cross. . Therefore, “meaning” must be related to love (the wounds are a sign of his profound identification with Jesus) and with intensity (they are a sign that Francis has completely continued to vision acquisition).
But it’s very easy to confuse the two!
Van Eyck painted this version of Francis’ vision, on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as a version about five times larger, in Turin, Italy, circa 1430-1432. For a long time, scholars disagreed about the number of both works that Van Eyck painted and how many might have been painted by others in his studio. But the evidence that both were due to Van Eyck alone appears quite clear.
The first thing you sign up for is the incredible level of detail on a very small scale. You notice snow-capped mountains, meandering rivers, verdant plains, and the distant city that was once Flemish and, in some details, based on Jerusalem. There is a boat. There are a lot of little people. The city is reflected in the water. Among the plants are dwarf palm trees, white flowers and a variety of shrubs, trees and grasses. The birds perched on the rocks, while others hovered around the trees. Scholars have identified limestone, igneous rock, and sedimentary rock. In some, you can even see fossil mollusks.
This mirror-like rendering technique is amazing. Van Eyck’s ability to use pigments, oils and enamels to simulate the way light is reflected from objects is unprecedented and has probably never been surpassed.
What caught me was the strong presence of Brother Leo, crouching under the protection of the monk. Leo was with Francis when the vision occurred, but more often than not he is depicted as smaller (because of less importance). Van Eyck paints him at the same scale and in the same space as Francis, which makes it meaningful that he’s sleeping. Notice how the weight of Brother Leo’s head against his hand wrinkles the skin around his eyes. Van Eyck clearly wants us to think about him.
Is he reminding us that when some of us have life-changing visions, others – even our most loyal companions – can be forgotten? Or is it rather related to the fact that while Leo is asleep, he may also be dreaming, that is, experiencing visions of his own?
One of Van Eyck’s great contributions was to incorporate religious imagery into everyday life. William James defined religion not in community or institutional terms but as “the feelings, behaviors, and experiences of [people] in their solitude [standing in] relating to anything they may consider sacred. Man, in other words, is like Saint Francis.
James understood that religious experience involved the “mystery of self-surrender.” One guaranteed aspect of everyday life is the nightly mystery of our surrender to sleep and dreams. How can we tell the difference between everyday dreams, spiritual nightmares and religious visions? Is it just evidence, like vestiges?
But that doesn’t happen every day. So what should the rest of us do? How much vision should we give, if we have them? Should we change our lives to fit our dreams? Or should we continue to stick with the foundation of the physical world, fossils, flowers and all?
https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/interactive/2021/jan-van-eyck-saint-francis-assisi/ Jan van Eyck painted one of the finest depictions of the ecstatic visions of Saint Francis of Assisi