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Of Time and the Altarpiece

The Guideposts senior editor shares how Medieval art connects with God.

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Look at this beautiful work of art. It’s a fourteenth-century Italian altarpiece from one of my favorite museums, the Norton Simon Museum in Los Angeles. I can picture it so clearly, hanging at the far end of a wing devoted to medieval and renaissance art. It seems to wait there in perfect stillness, outshining everything else in the room. Whenever I visit I’m drawn to it. It’s the first thing I want to see.

Like all works of medieval art it tells many stories at once. At the center is Jesus, placing a crown on the head of his mother Mary in heaven. Surrounding them are episodes from Jesus’ life. Birth in the manger. Veneration of the Magi. Presentation in the temple. All the way to the Crucifixion and Last Judgment.

It’s all there, presented in a kind of haphazard chronological order. The point, obviously, is to tell a story. But there’s more to it than that. The viewer is meant to see these episodes not simply as following one after the other, but as happening together, at the same time, with a kind of collective, simultaneous significance we can only barely comprehend.

People in the Middle Ages understood time differently. We moderns tend to picture time as a line running automatically from past to future. Medieval people saw it more like the bottom third of a triangle. Everything in the universe, from the very first moment to the last, is connected to the top of the triangle, which is God.

A person’s lifetime might take up one tiny bit of that triangle. But the whole was simply there. From God’s perspective everything had already happened, everything was visible. Everything was related to everything else by its relationship to God.

So when medieval artists drew pictures, they thought nothing of grouping all kinds of seemingly unrelated things together. Medieval depictions of the Annunciation, the moment when the Angel Gabriel tells Mary she will give birth to Jesus, show the entire story happening all at once. There is Gabriel at the door. There is Mary bowing down and simultaneously hearing and reacting to the news. Invariably God peeks down from clouds above and a dove descends on a slender golden thread. Everything jumbles together. No narrative sequence.

I like that way of looking at time. The way we moderns look at time is, in my opinion, a weird and inaccurate fantasy. We’re all so rooted in our own little consciousnesses we assume the rest of the universe works like we perceive ourselves working. We say, I was born, grow old and die, in that order, so the universe too must have a beginning, middle and end. One thing after another. The past causes the present.

Yet physicists tell us time doesn’t work that way at all. Time and space are bound together in complicated ways. The faster you move through space the slower time runs. A given length of time on our planet bears no resemblance to an equivalent length of time on faraway stars. The little we do know about time tells us in no uncertain terms that our everyday perceptions of it are wildly off the mark.

I’m glad for that. I would distrust a universe that worked according to my limited understanding. But I’m also frustrated. Discussions of big questions like faith and the underlying significance of existence so often proceed according to dumbed-down understandings of basic ideas like time. How can we argue intelligently about the nature of the universe and the possibility of God if we are stuck with a childish, self-centered vocabulary?

That’s why I like going to the Norton Simon. I make a beeline for my beloved altarpiece. I stare at it in happy silence and remember that I don’t know nearly as much as I think I know. I remember that I too am at the bottom of that triangle, and that somewhere in those stories painted with such exquisite detail there’s room for me and everyone else. Then I go look at the Corots.

Jim Hinch is a senior editor at GUIDEPOSTS. Reach him at jhinch@guideposts.org.

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