This post is based on an essay reflection I did for Art History I. The assignment was to sit for 20 minutes with a painting at the museum and write a theological reflection about the experience. Because of the word count limit, I wanted a chance to expand upon what I’d written.
When I first walked into a room of Virgin Marys and Baby Jesuses at the Chicago Art Institute, my eye was drawn to the life-size painting of a woman in black at the end of the room. I’d passed through a few rooms but hadn’t yet felt a pull to sit with any paintings. Portrait of a Noblewoman Dressed in Mourning in all her dark glory, however, quickly resonated with me. It wasn’t just the dark clothing, but the expression that struck me. I knew that face. The slight wrinkle in her chin and her glistening eyes were fitting for a grieving figure. I almost began crying with her, and I think that’s exactly what the artist intended too, considering that in the painting, a golden crucifix sits right at her side. The woman relates to the suffering of Christ–or even Mary since she lost someone dear to her. Onlookers are meant to do more than offer sorrys; they’re meant to reflect on when they were in her place, and meet her there. She invites viewers into empathizing and sympathizing with her.
Two boys around my age walked by and jeered: “Her face is like, ‘You think I didn’t kill my husband? Well honey, you thought wrong.’”
I couldn’t understand the joke, looking at the painting.
A touch of frustration resided in the Noblewoman’s eyes. As the two boys walked on, joking, her eyes seemed to say, “How dare you make fun of my pain. Please, just let me mourn. Don’t you see how much this hurts?”
Before my Chicago visit, I had recently watched an episode of The Art Assignment discussing art and empathy. The writers of the show remarked how some of the most empathetic art in history has been religious art. I find this especially true of art made by Christians. I didn’t just feel understood in my past griefs by the Noblewoman, but by Christ Himself. The art was meant to call me into worship, and remembrance of those around me who ache.
On the opposite side of the woman, the crucifix’s gold balances with the curtain’s gold trim. Just as there is such balance of color, there is balance of emotion. There is some hopeful expectancy in her eyes. Though her pale skin reminds me of a ghost or even a dying person, it also glows amid the silky black garments. There is light in the darkness. The Noblewoman is expectant in Christ and His resurrection.
While it’s most likely just the way her dress’ fabric folds, it appears she’s placing a hand on a baby bump. Even if it is just dress folds, with Advent recently passed, I think that’s a fitting idea to dwell on. She is not just assuming a relationship to Christ, I think, as much as she is to Mary weeping at her son’s crucifixion. I can’t help but be reminded of “Mary and Eve,” one of my favorite artworks. In just her face and the gestures of her hands, the Noblewoman carries such a wonderful mix of Eve’s shame and longing for hope, with Mary’s hopeful expectancy of a Messiah.
In my Creativity and Design class, Professor David Hooker told us to pay attention to the arrangement of paintings at the Art Institute, because the museum is organized with intention to teach visitors. During my 20 minutes, I noticed Noblewoman in Mourning was the only non-Biblical/nonsignificant historical figure I could see amid all the religious images, which could make her into sort of an “every man,” a place where the viewer could potentially insert him/herself. She represents the relationship Christ has with our “Maranatha” cries in an intimate, personal way. The Noblewoman’s glance slightly directs viewers to an image on the wall left of her—a painting of Christ carrying the cross.
On the wall behind the viewer, I also found an image of Baby Jesus, held by Mary and laughing with young John the Baptist. All three figures are joyful. The jarring contrast of the infant Jesus near the adult Jesus is purposeful, I think. It shows that while Christ is not unfamiliar with our suffering, He also comes to bring joy and healing.
By the Noblewoman’s feet (right of the painting of Christ carrying the cross) a golden crucifix sat in a display case, identical to the one at the woman’s side. It invited me not only to grieve with the Noblewoman but to hope in Christ’s healing power; to be humbled knowing I need a redemption, and simultaneously look up, awaiting His will for redemption. Portrait of a Noblewoman Dressed in Mourning is a reminder that there is fellowship found in lament, and that Christ partakes in that fellowship with us.
As I left, I found myself nodding to the painting and thinking, I’m sorry. And I’m sorry I have to leave you. You will be okay, I know it. He sees you right where you are.
Many thanks to Dr. Milliner for this wonderful assignment. I’d definitely like to do this again and take more time dwelling on singular pieces.
- Strength and Beauty by Citizens – This link goes to the powerful music video, which I do hope you watch, but otherwise, feel free to let these lyrics wash right over you.
- Psalm 23 by Zach Winters – I’m a sucker for Psalms-turned-songs, especially songs made with Psalm 23 in mind; I think this might be a new favorite. It really captures the heart of David’s words sound-wise, and keeps the integrity of the original Scripture lyrically. A good, soothing lullaby too (Here’s a link to the rest of Zach’s amazing album).
- Isaiah 43:1-2
- This quote from Anne of Avonlea I read recently:
“But, Anne, a broken heart in real life isn’t half as bad as it is in books. It’s a good deal like a bad tooth…though you won’t think that a very romantic simile. It takes spells of aching and gives you a sleepless night now and then, but between times it lets you enjoy life and dreams and echoes and peanut candy as if there were nothing the matter with it […] That’s the worst…or the best…of real life, Anne. It won’t let you be miserable. It keeps on trying to make you comfortable and succeeding…even when you’re determined to be unhappy and romantic.”
– Miss Lavendar Lewis, telling Anne about a lost love (p. 287-288)
(A good reminder to not be apathetic, ignoring pain by pretending it’s not there, but also to stop wallowing in it and to take the joy that God grants us in heartache)
May God use the new year to welcome in peace for the lonely, wisdom for the working, and grace for the trying.