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.