How to Look at a Masterpiece

The wonder of great beauty in art and music is that you never tire of it. It brings ever deeper joy, meaning and truth. It is profoundly awe inspiring and like a foretaste of paradise.

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By Carrie Gress

In February a new book by Emmaus Road Publishing, Looking at a Masterpiece, arrived in my mailbox. Large and lavishly illustrated, it appeared to be just another superficial coffee-table book. To my delight, there is much, much more to this lovely book.

As the weeks of Lent have passed, I have been reading through Looking at a Masterpiece, soaking in the text and images while mediating on the true meaning, significance, and grandeur of these masterpieces in a new way. Author Madeleine Stebbins does what has become so rare in the art world today: she looks at these remarkable works of art as they ought to be seen--with Christian eyes, instead of getting caught up in contemporary trends and aesthetic fads. Each entry has its own virtues, perspective, and insights. While not inexpensive, this book is like an art appreciation class and spiritual retreat rolled together, making it money well-spent for those of us who can't readily do either.

Among my favorite entries were Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son. The Father's tender embrace of his wayward son stuck me in a new way. Stebbins' explains this emotional response: "A magic touch of great art is its power of evocation -- that is, its power to make present to our souls and imaginations a spirit, an emotion, or a memory embedded deep in our psyche." Undoubtedly, the season of Lent also lent itself to my new appreciation of Rembrandt.

 Rembrandt, The Father embracing his Prodigal Son (All photos from  Looking at a Masterpiece )

Rembrandt, The Father embracing his Prodigal Son (All photos from Looking at a Masterpiece)

I also loved Stebbin's explanation of a Catholic ethos, illustrated by contrasting photos of little girls. She writes of the first painting (on the left), "There is a variegated humanity here, altogether in an unpretentious artist's studio, thereby demonstrating their footing in a basic human equality. Somehow despite age, rank, and class differences there is a common bond." In contrast, the second painting, she says, "Each child is like an island in an empty space. They are isolated from each other and forlorn in an atmosphere of haunting melancholy." These cultural differences are not accidental.

 Deigo Velazques,  Las Meninas

Deigo Velazques, Las Meninas

 John Singer Sargent,  The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

Madeleine Stebbins and I have met on several occasions, so I asked her to tell me more about her book, what inspired her to write it, and how we can learn to properly look at a masterpiece even without her help. I couldn't resist asking about her friendship with Alice von Hildebrand. They have been friends for 74 years! It is a friendship of such sweetness that a post on it could easily appear in these pages, but I decided to include more about it here.

Gress: How did the idea of a book project come to you?

Stebbins: Actually it all started in 2008 when I wrote something about a painting that I thought had been misinterpreted. I sent a copy to Lay Witness, a bi-monthly magazine. The editors agreed with my interpretation and invited me to write a regular column for them about a masterpiece. I thought of calling it "Looking at a Masterpiece." And so I started in January 2009, six times a year for six years. I had never thought of a book until Mike Sullivan and Andrew Jones suggested a book in 2014.

Gress: How did you form your own eye for beauty?

Stebbins: The initial impulses came in childhood when I loved looking at beautiful pictures. My parents had an art teacher teach me painting. And we had music lessons, my brother violin and the girls piano. Then in my college years I met a Jewish refugee, convert to the faith, philosopher, former student of Edmund Husserl, colleague and friend of Dietrich von Hildebrand, and friend of the family. Siegfried Hamburger was an extraordinary man, an elderly totally deaf man. He took me to museums and guided me to the really important masterpieces. So I had to write down: "Please tell me about this or that painting." And in a few words every time he would show me what the painting was saying and why it was great. It really suddenly opened my eyes to a whole world of beauty and truth.

Later on when I was a student at Fordham University I had the great good fortune to
be an assistant to Dietrich von Hildebrand on his student tours to art centers in Europe for eight summers. He was also a great master not only of philosophy but also of art appreciation, having written works on aesthetics. Later my husband and I spent many summers in Salzburg, Austria, as well as in Italy.

 Fra Angelico,   Christ on the Cross Adored by St. Dominic

Fra Angelico,  Christ on the Cross Adored by St. Dominic

Gress: Other than reading your book, do you have other suggestions about how people can come to appreciate the beautiful?

Stebbins: I think in order to appreciate beauty in art there is nothing like simply looking at a masterpiece one at a time, and to keep looking at it again and again. It takes time. Open yourself to it. Do not dismiss it right away or set yourself up as a judge. Approach it with reverence and humility. Don't expect to see its beauty immediately. Look at it with childlike wonder. Ponder it. It will grow on you with time.

So often, unfortunately, we have become used to seeing saccharine and well-intentioned pictures that are supposed to incite pious thoughts. Initially they often do so. But soon we see that they are insipid and trite, and foster a superficial, sentimental spiritual vision.

Also a lot of modern art is self-absorbed, melodramatic, chaotic, or plain ugly--decadent as Sir Kenneth Clark has called it. If children are not fed early with great art, instead feeding on fake art, they will discard it as they grow up. And with it out goes the faith which was misrepresented into the same trash basket.

It is the same with music, such as mediocre church music, or rock, or guitar strumming, etc. It may excite emotions for a while or please us, but it cannot compare with the depth evoked by great music and sacred chant. Any work that seems to aim directly to incite emotion is false. It has to have emotional integrity and to be truly authentic emotionally. If it tries to incite emotion it is a form of manipulation. Or trying to be original like a lot of modern art tries to be. It has to come from the heart of the artist, poet, or musician. Beethoven had a dedication for his "Missa Solemnis " -- something like: "From the heart may it go to the heart."

Also in a lot of modern art one can sense an impoverishment of the heart. There's a lack of love, true love, deep love, sacrificial love, self-giving, self-effacing love, selfless love. The fire and depth of chaste love is hardly understood. Mysteriously this lack also effects art.

The wonder of great beauty in art and music is that you never tire of it. It discloses itself with ever greater depth. And brings ever deeper joy, meaning and truth. It is profoundly awe inspiring and like a foretaste of paradise.

Also when you look at a masterpiece try to see the "world" (I mean a kind of spiritual universe) it conveys. Does its beauty lead you to a sense of the transcendent? What is its impact?  Does it "live"? Does it convey a higher world or a glimpse of a vision of beauty and of truth?

 Enguerrand Quarton,  La Pieta de Villeneuve-les-Avignon

Enguerrand Quarton, La Pieta de Villeneuve-les-Avignon

Gress: Do you have favorites among the paintings in the book?

Stebbins:  It's hard to say which are my favorite pieces, because almost everyone of them that I look at I fall in love with!

Among the ones that touch me most deeply is the Pieta of Avignon. There is an atmosphere of eternity in it and a sublime quality in its utter peace and depth that is quite indescribable. It is mysteriously beautiful. It is literally of another world. In my description of it I feel I fell so obviously short of what could have been said.

Then another one I fell so utterly short of is The Lamentation of Christ by Giotto. It is one of the the most moving pictures in the world in its religious richness and emotional depth and total authenticity, bringing us so close to Christ's overwhelming supernatural love and our union with Him.

I also especially love the Giotto Visitation. It is THE most perfect rendition of that mystery.

But I can hardly stop. By not naming others it may seem that I thought less of them as masterpieces but that is not the case.

Gress: You and Alice von Hildebrand have been friends for decades. Tell me more about your friendship.

Stebbins: I first met Alice Jourdain (later Alice von Hildebrand) about 74 years ago, not too many years after she arrived in New York with her sister Marie Helene as refugees living with her uncle and aunt at the Waldorf Astoria. We met at the monthly political evenings at Dietrich von Hildebrand's apartment at 448 Central Park West. And later at the monthly liturgical evenings when he gave talks on the liturgy, which profoundly influenced and inspired us both. We became friends almost immediately.

A few years later as students of philosophy at Fordham University under Professor von Hildebrand we shared an apartment in Manhattan, first together with Alice's sister, Marie Helene, and then with my sister Marie Therese, before their marriages.  We have always been the closest best friends through student days, and later when we married, our husbands were also friends. Our friendship was rooted above all in our thirst for a deeper spiritual life, our desire for total donation to Christ and love for His Church, together with our love for truth.

I learned so much from Alice in her clarity of thought, and her gifts of intellect, especially in the mine field of modern thought and culture; but also in our love of beauty in nature, in the arts, literature, and above all in great music. She is truly a beloved friend.

 Giotto di Bondone,  The Visitation

Giotto di Bondone, The Visitation

Carrie Gress