This afternoon, I had the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes at the National Gallery of Art, to tour the labs where skilled conservators work to preserve priceless works of art. At one table, a conservator examined a painting slowly under a microscope. Near a window, a woman in a black silk gown smiled enigmatically from a canvas by Van Dyke. By another window, a man wearing magnifying lenses worked painstakingly on a canvas by Fra Angelico, a painting of the entombment of Christ.
The painting was in dreadful condition. The faces of the figures were beautiful, but the background and robes had been ruined by a previous attempt at conservation, performed when harsh chemicals were all that had been available. The paint was marred and scarred, the colors of the robes muddied. Amid it all, the body of Christ shone out. The legs and torso were bright white — too white — while the face and shoulders were darkened by a deeply discolored layer of varnish. The conservator was working with a swab to clean the varnish off the corpus.
I asked him whether it could be made whole again. He replied that the damage to the landscape actually wasn’t bad, but that the real problem was the figure of Christ. “It should be pale, because he’s dead, but not that pale.” He said it was nerve-wracking, to have to reconstruct the central figure without much to go on, other than his studies of how Fra Angelico had depicted Christ in other paintings.
It would be nerve-wracking; I could barely have brought myself to do what the man was doing, touching a swab to something so ancient and so beautiful. But it is also what each of us must do: reconstruct the face of Christ anew in our lives, working by hints and guesses and old stories, tracing the lineaments we have been handed down, giving them living color as best as we can imagine it.
It is up to us whether to paint Christ living or dead, whether to honor his presence in every single person and creature, or to efface it by any means we have. Honoring it means giving them freedom and the wherewithal to succeed (food, shelter, education, moral teaching, faith, love, joy, cause for hope). To efface it, all we need do is withhold those things, without which our souls stumble. Some are more important than others. People can flourish without education, but not without love or hope. However, each of these things is necessary in some measure if we are to realize the potential that God placed within us and show forth God’s full glory to the world.
Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”
Photo depicts Jose Limon Dance Company.
The painting I’ve included is of the Fra Angelico, before restoration. In the version I saw, the image is a lot less complete, but the colors are true. For example, cleaned of the discolored varnish, the brown hill on the left is now revealed to be green, and the robes of the seated figure with her back to us are lovely shades of lavender.