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Mother + Babe
How and Why Do Certain Artworks Speak to Us?
This is the eighth installment in my series, The Art of Wisdom, a study of art from the world’s wisdom traditions.
Today’s illustration above is based on a 1493 painting of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus from The Nuremberg Chronicle. This illustrated encyclopedia documented the world history of the time alongside biblical stories and the history of Christianity.
When I sit down to create one of these Art of Wisdom illustrations, I first spend time just looking at various spiritual tradition artworks on the internet. I follow one thread to the next, one link to the next, not searching for anything in particular, and trying not to think too hard or force an outcome. At some point, I land on a piece of art that feels right. I don’t know why or how. But if I’m patient enough and open enough, it always happens eventually.
In that moment, I don’t ask ‘why this piece?’, I just embrace it and start drawing. After I finish creating my version of the drawing—spending time studying the original piece, being inspired by it, and imitating it in my own way—then I can being to contemplate why that particular piece of art called out to me.
This week, the artwork that stuck out to me was this painting of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. But why?
I can think of multiple reasons now, after sitting with the piece, experiencing it more deeply through drawing. I could sit here and list out all the explanations I can think of, all the reasons this artwork of mother and child relates to my life right now. All the analogies and metaphors and insights to carry forward.
But to be honest, I don’t think that’s really necessary or helpful for either of us. I’ve experienced those things through making, I’ve absorbed them already, better than if I tried to translate the meaning back into words. Because sometimes (always?) a painting can communicate wisdom more deeply than words. It forces you and the artwork to interpret, to interact, to dance together. So instead of trying to translate that active, living wisdom back into clumsy, static language, I’m going to let it be.
Perhaps my doing that will also allow you to form your own experience of the original artwork above and come to your own personal insights that relate to your life at this moment. Who knows, maybe this artwork was meant to speak to you as well?
Anyways, I’ll leave you with a quote from the Four Quartets by T.S. Elliot:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Thanks for reading, y’all.
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