I began this series with a question about how we develop a spirituality of seeing. When viewing a scene such as this one, of the Last Supper, would you focus on a particular detail of an individual, or a group, or the whole composition together, or the relationships between the characters within it, or something else? What do you see in this scene?
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We are used to seeing through the medium of moving pictures, in which typically the camera leads the eye. The motion picture photographer tells your eye where to look; it is a directed gaze. This is unlike live theater, in which everything on stage is available to be seen, and the audience looks as it wishes. And it is especially unlike visual art that does not move, but relies upon the eye of the viewer to explore it and examine it, to see it as one chooses, and at a slow pace.
Are we losing our capacity for meditative gaze? A museum curator I know recently quoted a statistic that visitors to art museums spend 15-20 seconds looking at a work of art. That is not a meditative gaze, if you ask me. That is a symptom of a weak eye, that is, of seeing weakened by always being told where to look, and made impatient by being trained always to move quickly from one scene to the next. It’s seeing that has forgotten or never learned how to explore freely, to drink in a scene, or to be lost in wonder before something of great beauty or significance. It is the gaze of one who does not intend to enter into inward dialogue with what is seen. It’s the omnivorous seeing of information gatherers, consumers, and fun-seekers, which is what we all are cultivated to be in the online, video, commercial world. It’s the opposite of religious or contemplative seeing.
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This wood carved altarpiece by Tilman Riemenschneider is in the Church of St. James in Rothenburg on the Tauber. It is called the “blood altar” because it holds a relic of what is supposedly a drop from the cup of the Last Supper, inside a crystal. Above this scene of the Last Supper is the Man of Sorrows, below, the Crucifixion.
Very unusually, the central figure of this composition is Judas. I’ve thought a lot about that choice as an invitation to “see” something. It asks the viewer, or so it seems to me, to reflect on Judas’s betrayal of the Savior and thus, by extension, our own betrayals. I didn’t “get it” at first that the “blood” in question was a Eucharistic reference; I assumed it was a reference to Christ’s physical blood shed on the cross. But they come together in the end: betrayal, blood money, the blood shed on the cross, the Eucharist. How do we betray him, even as we share his table?
If you look carefully, you will see that the figure of Judas protrudes a little. There are wings of the altarpiece that close, but they will not close while Judas is in the scene.