It is difficult to look at an image such as The Mona Lisa with fresh eyes. It is an image we have seen a million times over and emblazoned on every commercial product you can think of. But to the Renaissance eye, this image was alive and present. Vasari wrote of Leonardo’s masterpiece, “…whoever wished to see how nearly art is able to imitate nature, was readily able to comprehend it….The nose with its beautiful nostrils, rosy and tender, seems to be alive…the mouth..with its ends united by the red of the lips to the flesh tints of the face, appeared to be not colours but flesh…” Looking at art in this way, it becomes participatory and dynamic rather than a static object to be analysed.
We have been led to believe a lie when we see not through the eye
To reach beneath the surface of images, beyond just literal and allegorical interpretation, requires inquiry, patience, a focused imagination and ultimately a willingness to bring forth something different within ourselves.
In fact, it requires every part of us which comprises the entirety of our existence. Art has its own language if we choose to listen with our inner ear and see with the visionary eyes William Blake described.
Speaking to the intellect and soul
Art is a medium which embodies the material/ physical, the transcendent or hidden and is imagination incarnate. It speaks to the intellect and the soul, it is both symbolic and real. What we see in painting, sculpture and architecture reveal our intrinsic nature seeking expression through form.
As Anthony Gormley says, “the alchemy that you are turning lead into gold is merely a metaphor for what art does which turns gross matter into imagination” and conversely, art can be understood as the creative spirit which is held and hidden within the material form.
There are many scientific studies today which have surveyed the impact of deep observation, appreciation and imaginative engagement with art. It has been medically proven to awaken dormant parts of consciousness, helping to heal the body and emotional state by lowering stress hormones.
Contemplating and taking in the beauty of an image you love stimulates pleasure centres in the brain and alters brain chemistry leading to greater levels of consciousness.
Another study discovered that “mirror neurons” were fired in the brain when observing a great piece of art. Mirror neurons are neurons that fire both when a person acts and when the person observes the same action performed by someone else.
Before the Age of Reason and the Reformation, the imagination was highly regarded because it was an aspect of the world soul and psyche. Images were considered to be animate, not inanimate objects. But with the Enlightenment a new scientific worldview placed man outside of nature, as a spectator looking in on a world operating like a machine.
The anima mundi, the world soul was extracted. With it went the validation of the unseen, rich inner realms to be found in the memory and imagination – because these were understood as both part of and doorways into the anima mundi.
Today the world of the seen is more important
Today, the world of the seen is more important. It is as if we have pulled the insides out and in doing so, lost all mystery and subtlety. In the same way that we over interpret dreams, we can over analyse art and images.
During the Italian Renaissance the unseen, the hidden and the ethereal were honoured and as such, the qualities in a person that may detect these subtleties were also revered. That of the intuitive, empathetic, implicit, innate, perceptive, visionary and so forth were highly valued in contrast to the very explicit approach we have towards knowing the workings of nature and the world today.
The separation that we understand now between art and science, mathematics and alchemy, astronomy and cosmology, did not exist in Renaissance Italy because everything was understood as different threads in the same fabric of a cosmological make- up. At its heart, the macrocosmic worldview sat in place and everything else, seen as a microcosm stemming from a greater and harmonious order.
The Renaissance was an expression of the metaphorical coming together of inner and outer knowing and seeing. They were inherently connected.
For the Renaissance artist, their external senses were open, bristling with alertness and receptive to the world around them, and in particular the eye was considered the window to the soul. Nature was seen as maestra (mistress), and above man.