Seeing Bodies, Seeing Michelangelo's Prophets

by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

In his book The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing (public library), James Elkins brings his experience as an art historian to the question of what it means to look.  In chapter four, entitled "Seeing Bodies," he writes:

But if I shift my body every so slightly - say, I just turn my wrist a little to one side - then I am moving between two distortions, and neither one is closer to my undistorted shape.  A picture or a sculpture of the body is a distortion because it freezes the body, and if it's a picture, it also flattens the body.  Artists and art critics like to draw attention to the fact that any representation of the body is a distortion, but that is not what is distinctive about visual art.  The difference is that the distortion becomes evident, that the art makes us think about it.  The body already is essentially distorted, and the artist chooses another distortion to emphasize or minimize that fact (135).

As we spend time in the presence of art, we can become more mindful of our physical responses:

Normally there is nothing obvious about empathy or proprioception, and most viewers seldom even notice them; but they are universal.  If you go to a museum with these thoughts in mind, and if you spend more than a few moments in front of each picture, you will feel something of the bodily existence of each painted figure (138).

We can keep these points in mind whether we are viewing art in person or through a reproduction, such as the figures, including the prophets, from Michelangelo's ceiling of the Sistine Chapel:

The Prophet Daniel - PD-Art

The Prophet Isaiah - PD-Art

The Prophet Jeremiah - PD-Art

The Prophet Joel - PD-Art

The Prophet Jonah - PD-Art

The Prophet Zachariah - PD-Art