Guide How to look at a painting

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Her left eye the one farther from us is extremely sad; it turns away from us, and away from Jesus, into the dark folds of her veil. The nearer eye, if you look at it alone, seems to look back at you with an unsettling abstracted glance. Together, her two eyes give us a face that is just barely focused on its object. We are meant to know that Jesus is dead, and the Madonna's thoughts are turning inward.

Her eyes have almost lost their grip on what they see. They only stay focused because of her continuing effort. In the moments before the one depicted in the painting, she must have been wild-eyed, wailing and crying hard. Now the initial burst of passion has ebbed, and her tears have dwindled to a steady succession of drops. Her eyelids are puffed from crying, and both eyes are red.

The capillaries in her corneas are swollen, coloring her eyes a deep pink. Tears are dripping slowly down her cheeks.


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The further eye has two drops, and a third down on the cheek. The near eye is overflowing with tears -- you can see the brim, lucent on the lower lid. One tear has formed toward the back of the eye, and another is just dropping from the front. Two tears have fallen ahead of them: one on her cheek, and another that is about to swerve and run into her mouth.

The sadness of this is the way her grief is measured out. She only cried out loud when Jesus was put on the cross, and then brought down and buried.

But in Bouts's version she will never stop crying, as long as she lives. For years, she will have the same half-absent look, the same taut expression. Her tears now are everyday tears. The crucifixion could have happened years ago, for all we know: this is a painting about a state of mind, a permanent low-level mourning.

What she feels is consonant with Christian doctrine: the Madonna knew what would happen before Jesus was grown, and she still has that knowledge. It is a kind of eternal sadness, which will not be dulled by time.

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She remains in her room, weeping. Her slightly unfocused eye will always see the death of her Son. I have written about this image at more length elsewhere. Here I have just said enough, I hope, to suggest how a person might spend hours, and in the end years, in private communion with the figure in this painting. How long does it take to see this painting? A lifetime, more or less. Christian meanings have ebbed from serious art, but that does not mean we have lost reasons to see artworks slowly, with care and attention.

Time, patience, immersion: these are qualities that some art continues to call for, whether or not it is Christian. I'm sorry I lost touch with that woman in the Art Institute who looked at the Rembrandt. I wonder, in the end, what it told her, and what she said to it.

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Search Entire website. How to 'read' a painting Paintings can capture a child's imagination and inspire great English or drama work. Reading a painting is similar to reading a book: The reader decodes symbols to establish meaning The reader uses inference and deduction e. Viewing page 1 4. See also. Explore paintings through drama. Paintings for storytelling.