You know what I did to restore myself after the demands of the Christmas season? I looked at faces. Well, that’s not all. First, I slept. Only thus refreshed did I go into the city with Fr. Nick for a New York Philharmonic concert. (Shostakovich – a personal favorite. Excellent.) That was very restorative; I hadn’t been to the symphony in ages.
Later, it was on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and not just to wander around, for I knew what I wanted to see: the Spaniards. Working my way toward Velasquéz, Murillo, and Zurbarán, I had to ask an usher where they were. He was very helpful, even concerned. After I spent over an hour walking three rooms, he found me to tell me about another part of the museum that would have things I would enjoy.
Saint John in the ecstasy of Revelation; a cardinal with round glasses and a beard like my dad’s; Jesus carrying his cross, raising his eyes to heaven. All of these El Greco, “the Greek” who painted in Spain, revealed in a style that could be modern, but is timeless.
He and several others of diverse ages and places painted Saint Jerome. Piero della Francesca showed the ascetic holy man’s sharp edge in the eyes he levels on a supplicant, the painting’s donor. How could a man so prickly also be holy?
Bronzino, the Florentine, portrays a handsome young nobleman is black silks. Staring confidently at the viewer, his direct gaze disguises his wandering wall-eye. Erasmus, that most Renaissance of Renaissance men, is every bit the match, intellectual and personal, of his friend and correspondent Saint Thomas More, even though the same painter, Hans Holbein the Younger, gave him a smaller and sketchier portrait.
In wood as well as oils, every face reveals a life and character. A bishop raising his hand while raising a point; one of the Magi, focused and impatient, looks more like the Habsburg heir apparent who was his imperial inspiration than he does an adoring royal. Those anonymous Germans who carved wood seven and eight centuries ago knew the contours of life!
There is nothing in nature or manufacture more beautiful, more powerful, more revelatory, or more arresting than the human face. True art plumbs its depths and reveals its reality, an exploration that will never be completed.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27) He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. (Col 1:15) Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Cor 15:49) And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (Jn 1:14)
Even amidst the sought and unsought anonymity of the big city, where eyes are averted and faces downcast on sidewalks and subways, when I am wearing my priest’s collar, people make eye contact with me. Business-people, laborers, waiters, ushers, cops, train conductors, tourists, and natives; it’s as if they know that it’s okay if their eyes meet mine.
Even in New York City, when you look into people’s faces, you can see how they resemble God.