That unwavering, unquestioning look of faith on the young woman’s face. The book resting securely in both hands (if she were driving a car she’d have her hands on the wheel precisely at 10 and 2). The hint of asymmetry that is immediately made right: only the left side of the chair back visible but then the shadow falls to the right; the dispenser of holy water is on the one side, counterbalanced by the painting on the left which might just be too big were it not for the frame that creeps in from the right, narrowing the space in which the girl sits. But the tension isn’t completely resolved, there remains just a tiny bit of humanizing disequilibrium: the feet in their sensible black leather shoes are not parallel — no, her left foot turns in ever so slightly in what I imagine is a catch of the breath as she declares to the world she is prepared to receive the holiest of sacraments, for she is “The Communicant.” When I spotted her in the American galleries of the Detroit Institute of Arts, I knew she was one of my three picks.
In retrospect, she probably set the tone for the remaining two choices. Downstairs in the Asian section a 13th-14th century statue carved of wood of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. He looks tired, but happy. His beard has grown out all curly, his arms are ropy, and his torso so thin his ribs show. He has been fasting and meditating for six years and he now knows…well, everything he needs to know.
But rather than the otherworldly beautiful Buddhas we often see staring down from altars, this guy looks like a man who has worked hard to find peace; he has a look of satisfaction on his face that lacks all trace of pride. Am I projecting? Probably — but I figure that’s what some art is meant to do, isn’t it? Fire those mirror neurons in our brain so we know from the inside what the artist is communicating?
Finally the last piece is a 15th-century aquamaline with its wonderful tongue hanging out and its mane washing down in waves as though to remind us that there is water sloshing inside his body. This vessel with its handy spout is in the form of a lion (associated with Christ) and was used by priests to wash their hands before handling the host…
they were going to give to communicants….
Even more than the fact that, without realizing it till just now, I was closing the loop with my first pick, I love discovering that aquamalines in the shape of animals came into Christian practice from Islam. Makes me wish I had seen the exhibition in 2006 at the Bard Graduate center and wonder just which aquamaniles might be on view currently at the Met.