We all have imaginations, but it is rare to have an actual “vision,” such as the one Francis of Assisi is said to have experienced during a 40-day fast on the mountain at Verna in Tuscany. So rare that when such experiences do come, they carry with them, as William James wrote, “an enormous sense of inner authority and illumination.”
At the same time, they’re incredibly hard to share. And harder still to connect with our ordinary lives, with which they tend to conflict.
The art of painting was for the longest time — and perhaps still is — a way to connect profound experience with everyday life, and so to sustain the authority of visions, of the unknown, perhaps even of death.
This very small painting — it’s about 27 square inches — by the incomparable Jan van Eyck (c. 1395-1441) depicts a vision experienced by Francis at the beginning of the 13th century, near the end of his life. Francis saw a man with six wings fixed to a cross. “He was utterly amazed,” wrote his hagiographer, Thomas of Celano. “He could not fathom what this vision might mean.”
The vision’s meaning became clearer when wounds, or stigmata, appeared in the parts of Francis’s body (his feet and hands) where Jesus was nailed to the cross. So the “meaning” had to do with love (the wounds were a sign of his profound identification with Jesus) and with intensity (they were a sign of Francis’s complete absorption in the vision).
But it’s easy to get those two things confused!
Van Eyck painted this version of Francis’s vision, on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as a version about five times bigger, which is in Turin, Italy, in around 1430-1432. For a long time, scholars have disagreed about how much of both works Van Eyck painted and how much may have been painted by others in his studio. But the evidence that both were by Van Eyck alone appears quite strong.
The first thing you register is the stupendous level of detail on a very small scale. You notice the snowcapped mountains, meandering river, green plains and the distant city that is at once Flemish and, in some details, based on Jerusalem. There is a boat. There are lots of tiny people. The city is reflected in the water. Among the plants are dwarf palms, white flowers and a variety of shrubs, trees and grasses. Birds are perched on rocky crags, while others wheel around a tree. Scholars have identified limestone, igneous and sedimentary rocks. In some you can even see fossilized mollusks.
The virtuosity of this mirror-like rendering is amazing. Van Eyck’s ability to use pigments, oil and glazes to simulate the way light reflects off objects was unprecedented and has perhaps never been surpassed.
What arrests me is the emphatic presence of Brother Leo, hunched under his monk’s cowl. Leo was with Francis when the vision happened, but usually he is depicted as smaller (because less important). Van Eyck paints him at the same scale and in the same space as Francis, which makes the fact that he is asleep feel significant. Notice how the weight of Brother Leo’s head against his hand creases the skin around his eye. Van Eyck clearly wants us to think about him.
Is he reminding us that when some of us are having life-changing visions, others — even our most loyal companions — might be oblivious? Or is the point rather to do with the fact that while Leo is sleeping, he may also be dreaming, which is to say, experiencing his own visions?
One of Van Eyck’s great contributions was to integrate the imagery of religion into daily life. William James defined religion not in communal or institutional terms but as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of [people] in their solitude [standing in] relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” People, in other words, like St. Francis.
James understood that religious experience had to do with “the mystery of self-surrender.” One guaranteed aspect of daily life is the nightly mystery of our self-surrender to sleep and to dreams. How can we know the difference between everyday dreams, psychic maladies and religious visions? Is it only by evidence, like the stigmata?
But that stuff doesn’t happen every day. So what are the rest of us to do? How much weight should we give visions, if we have them? Should we change our lives to match our dreams? Or should we remain wedded to the bedrock of the material world, fossils, flowers and all?