Pictures & Tears, James Elkins

“On the third Sunday in Lent, in the year 1380, St. Catherine stood in a courtyard outside old St. Peter’s church in Rome.  She was looking up at a high wall above the cloister, at a giant mosaic showing a boat on a stormy sea.  It was Giotto’s famous picture… nicknamed the Navicella, or Little Boat.  ….For St. Catherine the meaning was clear: You will sink if you do not accept Jesus as your savior.  But who would jump out of a boat into a stormy sea?  How much faith can a person have?  As she stood there, St. Catherine suddenly felt the whole weight of the boat on her own shoulders, and she collapsed to the ground.  From that moment until the end of her life, she was paralyzed from the waist down.  ….Yet it wasn’t only the picture’s mass that crushed her, or even Giotto’s unparalleled skill: it was the force of faith that Giotto had made visible.”

“How can we possibly find our way back to St. Catherine’s piety?  How can we experience anything even remotely like the burning intensity with which she looked at pictures?  At the least, we would have to be pious.  Then it would be necessary to overlook the painting’s quality, stop thinking about its stiffness or its skill, stop wondering how much it’s worth, or who owned it last.  It would be necessary to stop seeing pictures as artworks.  I think it’s too late for all that.  We’ve been crushed by the weight of history’s myriad minute facts, and St. Catherine’s piety has slipped away.”

© 2001

Michael WeiComment