BY JANA GERING
Let me say first that I am not a musician. However, when I listen to live music especially, I am reminded that music as a medium is so rooted in time. A song or piece of music sometimes acts as an extended moment or meditation on an idea, emotion, or story, and it asks of the listeners that they follow the thread, listening to and dwelling on the ideas, story, or emotions being shared. For three minutes or so you are in something resembling a conversation as you fulfill your end of the contract by listening.
I am not a musician, but I am a painter. Unlike a song, visual art is usually not a time-based medium. To look at a painting or a piece of visual art takes almost no time at all--but great paintings compress a lot of story into a single moment (instead of "expanding" a moment, idea, story, or emotion as a song does), so to really see it, you have to engage in a conversation in the same way as you would listen to a song.
While traveling with friends several years ago, we (predictably) ran out of time in Florence, Italy to see some of the art we had all wanted to see. On our last morning before catching a train to Rome, Anne and I woke up early to fit in one last excursion—She went to see the David at the Accademia, and I went to see the Convent of San Marco, where between 1439 and 1444, the Domenican painter Fra Angelico was tasked with decorating the newly-rebuilt monastery.
Four of us had been traveling in a pack most of the time, so it’s possible this experience stands out because I was able to experience it alone and focused. But I was struck at the time by the presence of female figures in so many of Angelico’s paintings. Of course, most of his paintings focus on Biblical elements and stories from scripture about the life of Jesus Christ, and it wasn't totally standard to include women in these narratives unless they were specifically mentioned in the stories. There are women not only at the tomb scene, where they are the first witnesses of the resurrection, but at almost every story about Jesus' life and death. Mary and Martha, with their names lettered in their aureoles, and sometimes other women, too. Fra Angelico seemed to accept and embrace that Mary (he doesn't differentiate between the several women named Mary from the New Testament) and Martha were followers of Jesus and part of the greater story, instead of being side characters. It's remarkable that he strays from a literal interpretation of the stories, often including women not just as people in the story, but as representatives of the Christian life.
I was able to get a print of my favorite Fra Angelico fresco at a used bookstore once, and it’s framed on my wall. Jesus prays from the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating blood in the top left corner as he converses with an angelic figure who probably represents the Holy Spirit. But this painting is less about that moment in the story and more about the viewer’s response. In the middle of the painting Peter, James, and John sleep, as the story tells us, instead of watching and praying as Jesus had asked them (or are possibly stressed out, as one of my friends commented “they look like they’re face-palming!”).
In the front and lightest part of the painting, Mary and Martha sit, Mary with a book and Martha with her hands lifted in prayer. While it is pretty cool that the ladies are totally being awesome in this scenario, the two figures were also meant to represent two aspects of the christian life that were important in christian thought: the active christian and the meditative christian. Mary, is meditative, while Martha - she who was famously reprimanded by Jesus in another story for being too busy - is actively praying. I love that Martha’s activity, while it earned her a scolding earlier, has now been redirected into prayer. I also love how she is kneeling slightly at Mary’s feet, perhaps showing that she learned to respect Mary's quieter way of life.
This painting is one of some thirty or so small wall paintings--one to each "cell" or tiny room that housed a monk in the dormitory area of the convent. Each room was as small as a closet, holding only a cot and a small shelf for books, the only color in the rooms were the wall frescoes, each another moment in the story of Jesus' life. They spent hours meditating and learning the stories of their scriptures, drawing out every last drop of meaning.
At the very entrance of the living area, a huge painting of the angel Gabriel's meeting with the Virgin Mary is incredible and awe-inspiring. But these smaller frescoes, painted in each tiny, spartan cell, were meant for more than just depicting a story, but for creating a conversation in order to find meaning, to connect to the story, and for the viewer to learn from his or her own response to what the artist has shown.
What are the works of art that make you pause and think? What songs do you listen to over and over again? What movies do you return to or think about after you've seen them? Which books do you re-read? Whatever art that comes to mind, I hope you're having some great conversations.