Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Xray Vision

Just before Christmas this year I read an article in the Boston Globe (December 23, 1008) with this line in it: "The painting that is now a horizontal nativity was once a vertical crucifixion."

At first I thought it should be reversed— that the Renaissance painter, Jacopo Tintoretto, would have painted a Nativity scene before a Crucifixion scene. But not so. Using Xray technology at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, curators have discovered that the Tintoretto "Nativity" painted in 1580, contains a fascinating "hodgepodge" of images, a painting behind the painting.

To the trained eye "Nativity" has been an embarrassment, although it is enormous and presides over the museum's Koch gallery "It's off," said an asistant curator.

For example, a bearded shepherd, supposed after all to be entranced by the new baby in the crib is instead focused upward toward the sky not the central event. No parent in his or her right mind when snapping the one millionth photo of a newborn baby would aim for the sky.

It seems that the artist changed his mind and chopped up the original crucifixion canvas for reasons not known, pieced together a new vertical canvas, painted over the old subject matter and came up with "Nativity" (1580) It's a cut-and-paste job. It's not rare to paint over things but "to cannibalize your own picture is a very rare thing in European art," according to the curator.

Theories about Tintoretto's motivation abound of course, just as they do in a whodunnit mystery novel. It made me think of a line from Yeats' poem "The Magi." The poet describes the three sages silhouetted against the dark blue sky, traveling "hoping to find once more/ being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,/ the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor." (Now I have cannibalized the poem by lifting the lines from the whole. But that's what Xray vision is; it focuses you where you need to see more. And spiritual Xray vision can help us detect the Holy in the oddest places, like crucifixes and gathered stable beasts peering at a newborn.

I wonder if, like the Magi in the ancient biblical story, Tintoretto was also unsatisfied with the gruesome death scene and suddenly needed to remember and re-present the birth. By Xray both are there.

Too bad we can't just cut up life like a canvas and pick and choose the parts that satisfy us. But we can remember and most of us do. Nevertheless, life is a mixed bag and, unlike horse and carriage or love and marriage, you really can't have life without both birth and death, the vertical and the horizontal always present in shadow form, one hovering in the background as the other for a time takes center stage. Then they switch, like Tintoretto switched his canvas's in focus and direction.

But it's all there by Xray.

Medical science takes Xrays to find disease, yes, but to determine as well the proper focus for healing and life-saving treatments.

It is spiritually healing I think, for us to live as peacefully as we can with this annoying mix. For at any moment the worst can become the best. If you polish up your spiritual Xray vision you can find life in death, blessing in curse—and even the reverse.

Good religion is always about transformation, things not being what they seem. With soul vision (spiritual Xray) I can sometimes see, when I take time— gaze enough, assume divine presence and ask for it— the Holy in the vulnerable beastly flesh, resurrection hope in a suffering death, the picture behind the picture behind the picture.

1 comment:

Andy said...

Hi! very interesting article. I like this blog more than my own blog.
X-Ray Fluorescence