In a recent blog, Leonard Sweet’s Summoned to Lead referenced Leonardo DaVinci’s philosophy of art – Sapere Vedere – knowing how to see. With DaVinci’s remarkable ability to connect science, technology, and philosophy, he advocates that art is not only about the creation but also the process of seeing what is created. Through cross-disciplines, Sapere Vedere requires that you put on a lens to see with fresh eyes what is, both the scene and the way in which you see the scene. David Morgan does something similar by putting on two lenses: art and religion. He describes this connection through a sacred gaze which “designates the particular configuration of ideas, attitudes, and customs that informs a religious act of seeing as it occurs within a cultural and historical setting.” He calls his readers into a practice – a gaze – that helps see art for what it says about religious belief, in particular Christianity in the US. It’s not seeing religion as only theologians understand, but rather with visual images of the common people that depict a realistic reflection of society at the time. By addressing politics, history, psychology, theology, and literature, Morgan integrates all of these disciplines to reveal the connection of art and religion.
Reading through what Morgan has compiled, I hear names I haven’t heard in awhile – Elizabeth Cady Stanton (suffragist), G. Stanley Hall (early psychologist), Colonel Balch (precursor author of the Pledge of Allegiance), and Warner Sallman (artist of the famous Jesus picture). In each of the individuals mentioned, their part in the visual images reflects the nature of society at that time. The values of the culture surface through “[t]he prevalence of images of sacrifice, self-denial, saintly courage, communal solidarity, and memorial enshrinement suggest[ing] that religion and its mass-culture icons remain for Americans one of the most powerful components of their experience of nationhood.” By way of art, in particular visual art, religion is as much about equality, humanism, and patriotism as it is about the Jesus in Sallman’s picture that becomes the Christian’s icon for how to behave in society.
Morgan’s breadth and depth of historical and cultural understanding provides a foundation for the question he wants to answer: “What do we learn about religion by investigating the power of images, that is, their capacity to frighten, seduce, deceive, influence, and inspire?” These visuals touch not only the mind, but also the heart and body. These images impact a way of seeing, not just the particular object, but the message it communicates within a culture. Recalling Critical Thinking (Paul and Elder), there are two strategies of nine that help develop thinking around this concept of Sapere Vedere. One is “redefine the way you see things,” and the other is “get in touch with your emotions.”
I have a deaf student in my math class that I teach at the community college. She has told me that she is a visual learner for obvious reasons. Recently, she expressed frustration with all the independent work I require. With so many students at different levels, it’s difficult to stay together on the same concepts. After some consideration, I realized that I didn’t “see” what she saw. Being deaf, she looks forward to “conversation” in a classroom whether through teacher instruction or student participation. She already has enough independent work that she does on her own in her quiet world. My first inclination was to get defensive when she was frustrated, but it was when I made the attempt to “see” differently, we were able to come up with a solution.
In our churches, how quickly we are to only “see” a certain way. And that’s the right way, right? I wonder what kind of understandings would take place if we stepped back to gaze at what is versus what we think things should be. That doesn’t mean we will necessarily change the circumstances, but with critical thinking skills we can redefine the way we see it. In much of my research on aging, one of the key components for well being is the capacity to reframe life experiences, the good and bad. This idea of finding a “way” to see versus just seeing could be similar to Jesus as the “way” versus just believing in Jesus. Following Jesus on the way certainly requires a constant new re-seeing of who God is.
In addition to seeing, Morgan also points to how art actually attends to the whole person – body, mind, heart, and soul. “The ways of seeing experience in religious visual culture are felt more often than they are rationally articulated. As part of the lived experience of belief, they inform the character and everyday life of religion….” Perhaps there is an essence in art that can actually be part of the way that God transforms us. I consider icons that are often used in Eastern Orthodox traditions. They are not merely for depiction of saints and God, but there are ways to be touched through viewing of them. Similar to the stained glass windows in the Middle Ages, the communication of the gospel comes through not only the art, but also by the way it moves in people.
Could it be that religious art not only helps us see what is, but also allows us to get in touch with how we feel about it? No longer does the head dictate how we understand and know (in the biblical sense) something. Rather, the message gets closer to the core of who we are, a place of vulnerability that can be responsive to God’s invitation. The picture that comes to mind is the table where the bread and the wine sit. This visual representation of God’s welcome to us serves as a reminder of His love, but even more, becomes a part of us through the picture and then the act of responding to it by receiving it.
 David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), 3.
 Ibid, 255.
 Ibid, 258.
 Morgan, 258.
11 responses to “Sapere Vedere”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
But Mary, I wonder, are visual depictions of any kind actual, legitimate communications of the Word of God or are they merely objects that point people to, and prepare them for, the Word of God?
Ooooooo, I love/hate how you make me think.
So before I continue on with my thoughts, is this thought line similar to the various beliefs around communion – is it merely a representation of Christ and the last supper OR does the actual bread and wine transubstantiate into the real Christ?
Aaaauuughhh! NO that WASN’T what I was thinking but NOW I am! Thanks a lot Mary! Ha!
I’m just wondering how do we define “communicate” and is our definition restricted to mere words (printed or spoken) in any other venue or is it only in the church where we demand this narrow of a definition? Can the images be construed to be actually communicative in and of themselves or do they only serve to point us to where real communication happens?
So, in terms of transubstantiation, can the the image BECOME the communicated Word of God or is it only resident WITH (consubstantiation) the communicated Word of God?
I totally didn’t plan on using that much brain power on this one…
I keep going back to the peasants/serfs of the middle ages who were illiterate. Their only form of “communication” with God, since they certainly didn’t understand latin, was from the stained glass windows. Those pictures told them the story.
I also think of Muslims who convert to Christianity as a result of dreams. They don’t know scripture, only this supernatural experience of Jesus coming to them.
So I guess I think there is efficacy in the art with a message from God, than merely pointing to God.
Yea, I wasn’t intending to think so much either 🙂
Thanks Mary…I think you touched on what I was getting at a little in my post when you said “I wonder what kind of understandings would take place if we stepped back to gaze at what is versus what we think things should be.” That’s what I was going for when I was comparing gazing vs scared gazing. At the end of my post I was asking the question of how can we help people move from gazing to sacred gazing and I think you sort of helped me answer that question…You concluded by asking, “Could it be that religious art not only helps us see what is, but also allows us to get in touch with how we feel about it?” I think that’s right…the desire to get in touch with how we feel is a movement from gazing to sacred gazing. It’s the differences of just having knowledge on an image and the image actually moving me. Thanks Mary.
Nick, you’re speaking my language. How do we help people pause long enough to notice what’s around them? We know it’s true when we tell our kids to count to 10 before punching someone (hopefully they won’t need to punch then). But when it comes to acknowledging the sacred presence of God in art, or other means, so much of that is simply stopping long enough to listen. I think that’s why Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, others, are so insistent on the “practice” of listening to God. It doesn’t just happen; it requires an intentionality with time.
One practice I’ve done is get pictures that people are supposed to choose, and the reaction can either bristle or resonate. Both are helpful in understanding what’s going on inside of us, especially in light of knowing that the Spirit speaks to us in the good and the bad. Our job is simply to notice.
Mary, I really appreciate how you paused and tried to understand your deaf student’s challenge. That her learning didn’t have to focus as much on independent study. Certainly art helps us see and feel from another’s view. That such a gaze can become a shared experience. As always, I love your posts. Thanks
I find it fascinating how God is teaching me through contexts outside of my church. I know it to be true that God is in the secular as well as the sacred. But I’m still surprised how much I’m learning from my deaf student. I consider her a gift from God, and she probably doesn’t even know what she’s done for me. Maybe I’ll need to tell her.
God bless you Mary and very good points you bring out. One of the things i noticed was how you talked about how we see things and how images convey thought. Great point. And to me its hard to be culturally specific if you don’t see a picture that conveys your culture specifically. But i have a problem with some. For instance the portrait of a white or a black Jesus too me can be racially motivated. Its hard to see either one and not look at the portrait as an attempt to make Jesus one or the other. So in understanding art and what it is trying to convey must be art without bias to me to be true and compelling or its just propaganda in some instances to push other agendas and ways of thought! Blessings
Travis, I so agree about having pictures that seem to convey another message, other than the one that it “supposedly” reflects. I remember seeing a “Palestinian” picture of Jesus, meaning he was darker skin and certainly not the iconic one that Morgan speaks about. It jarred me at first because it was so different than to what I was accustomed. But as I sat with the picture I was able to realize how culturally influenced I am, not only in art but also in my belief system. I hope to discern better those images that are pushing an agenda for what it is. Thanks for the reminder.
Mary, Your post reminded me of a phrase, “making a memory,” that my Dad always used to say. It was his way of helping us as a family take visual-mental snapshots of moments that would be fleeting if we didn’t pause and capture the goodness we were experiencing. Whether on a vacation, a weekend, or any special moment by Dad instilled in our family a “gazing” or “Sapere Vedere” pattern and appreciation that has profoundly impacted my faith and life. Great post!