Looking at Saint Luke

Today the church celebrates the feast of Saint Luke. On his Vultus Christi blog, Dom Mark Kirby describes Luke’s gospel as a “rosary of icons”–a series of events from the life of Christ upon which to meditate.

Saint Luke’s vivid descriptions help us to picture these events as we read. But there is another reason to compare Luke’s writing to iconography: according to tradition, besides working as a physician, Luke painted icons of the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ.

Physician, writer, and painter: in these three activities, we see expressed Luke’s love for creation and for the “Imago Dei.” G.K. Chesterton has written about how, to understand what ails the body, a doctor must first understand and respect the body as it was meant to be–healthy and whole. A writer must have a sense for storytelling, for the arc of human experience, and he knows directly the limits of language before the great mysteries of reality. And in order to work, a painter must first observe creation with great intensity, understand again the limitations of his medium, and then devote and humble himself to his subject.

With these characteristics of Luke in mind, I encountered for the first time (on Fr. Kirby’s post) this 1660 depiction of Saint Luke by the painter Francisco Zurbaràn:

Saint Luke as Painter Before Christ on the Cross, Francisco Zurbaràn, 1660
Saint Luke as Painter Before Christ on the Cross, Francisco Zurbaràn, 1660

I found myself unintentionally imitating Luke’s pose — Zurbaràn’s painting made me put my hand on my heart and stare.

Christ crucified and Luke at the foot of the cross stand in bold relief before the simple background. Light comes down from the left, illuminating half of Christ’s tortured body and plunging the other half and most of his downcast face into shadow. Turned towards the light and towards Christ, Luke looks up with an expression that I am not sure how to name–the mouth open in disbelief, in sorrow, in awe; the eyes utterly compelled by the beauty or the tragedy or the confounding mingling of both that they behold; the hand inadvertently placed over the chest (do we do that because a scene leaves us short of breath, aware of our mortality, of some strange depth in our hearts?); and then in his left hand, in the detail of Zurbaràn’s that moved me most, Luke holds his painter’s palette.

I paint, and often encounter scenes whose beauty I would like to paint. But I find it difficult to hold those images in my memory in enough detail to recreate them later on. I strain my eyes and try to fix a scene in my mind, but even as I do so, I can feel it slipping away. Whether or not one paints, we all experience at different points that desire to fix some scene in our memories and the great difficulty of doing this. I think this often causes us pain because, in such attempts, our longing for the eternal runs into the limitations of this present world in which the lives of men are like grass and flourish like a flower of the field and then “the wind blows over it and it is gone” (Psalm 103).

I have felt such sadness before simple and sweet scenes. If you have ever wished you could fix in your memory something like the light falling through the leaves or the look of some savoury meal and felt disappointed that you couldn’t quite capture those scenes, imagine how Saint Luke–physician, writer, artist–would feel before Christ crucified.

What if that was me standing there? I would be trying to fix every detail of this scene and of this man I loved into my memory. And to think this was the end, to not know (as his disciples did not know) that Christ would return–Zurbaràn’s painting gives me a small experience of that overwhelming agony.

Some have speculated that Zurbaràn used himself as a model for Luke. Luke’s painted figure has about it that searching sincerity one finds in honest self portraits which makes the figure depicted at once unique and universal.

May Saint Luke on his feast day–through his gospel account and through his images and through those he has inspired like Francisco Zurbaràn–draw you ever closer to Christ.

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