Tuesday, March 02, 2010

"Taking what is, and seeing it as it is"

Last fall, I wrote here about Jan Vermeer's The Milkmaid, which at the time was enjoying a bit of limelight as the centerpiece of a show at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since then, the painting has been the desktop for one of my laptops. Here is a detail: this stocky, sensible young woman, who has been studiously ignoring me every day as I write. (Click the image to enlarge.)

Who was she? How long was she required to pose, holding the heavy pitcher, the muscles of her arms straining with fatigue. Did Vermeer pay her, this maid of Delft, or did she volunteer her service for the artist? Could she have guessed that 350 years later we would celebrate her beauty through the illuminating power of art?

The painting is very much a homage to materiality: the flesh of the girl's bared forearms, the rough cloth of her dress, the ceramics, wicker, brass and bread, the dribble of milk. It is, in one specific sense, a very Catholic painting, sacramental in its "faith in the power of the image to incorporate a mysterious presence that is both living and indefinable" (I quote the scholar Daniel Arasse). If there is a defining difference between traditional religions and religious naturalism it is in the notion of revelation. In traditional religions, revelation comes as direct communication from an extranatural divinity through holy books or prophets -- that is, through human imagination and the received stock of stories and metaphors. Traditional revelation is generally expressed in anthropomorphic forms and quickly becomes dogma. For the religious naturalist, revelation is encountered anywhere and everywhere, in the isness of what is, as a vague perception of "a mysterious presence that is both living and indefinable."

With The Milkmaid, Jan Vermeer is our prophet. He sees into the isness of this simple domestic scene -- sees it charged with mystery, that sense, so amply confirmed by science, that there is always more to the world than meets the eye, not something supernatural, but metanatural, the rich and extravagant isness of things that overflows our knowing. And here, this thoughtful young woman from the household or neighborhood has become the instrument of revelation, the channel by which something ineluctable leaps out of the isness of matter and transfixes us. How else to explain the power of pigments on canvas to hold our rapt attention across the ages?