Tuesday, February 24, 2009

24: vanishing still

I am ever the linguistic analyst.

Today's case in point is, well, a matter of two points. Namely: vanishing and focal.

(Note: this post is an extension of yesterday's discussion of vanishing points.)

A vanishing point is the element in an image that creates the impression of infinity. It is the point at which our eyes cease to process an object's presence and our brains fill in the blank with its going on forever. When we look at a vanishing point, we are really looking through it, beyond it.

A focal point, on the other hand, is a spot fixed on something visible. It is inherently tied to the finite. I'm thinking along the lines of a still life rather than a grand detailed architectural drawing.

Vanishing point vs. focal point: it was in church a few Sundays ago that I scribbled the two terms in my notebook. I don't remember whether they were directly related to the specific topic being discussed at the time. Odds are they weren't, but rather through a series of successive associations and tangents, they occurred to me as relevant and worthy of jotting down for the sake of future recall.

The dichotomy is, however, applicable to a gospel topic. Likely it could be applied to a number of gospel topics, but one in particular comes to mind, as I recall a recent conversation with a friend. We were discussing the different approaches to the Atonement that are generally found in our respective churches. In the church she grew up in, the focus was usually on the crucifixion; in the church I belong to, the angle is often toward the resurrection. Both are real and essential parts of the same doctrine; it is only that slight shift in viewpoint that makes for subtleties of meaning.

Consider the following paintings of identical subject matter, with entirely different approaches:

First, Francisco de Zurbarán's Saint Luke as a Painter, Before Christ on the Cross (1630-39):

[click to enlarge]

The crucifixion corresponds to the end of Christ's mortal life. It is a finite event with a clear aspect of completion and a single, inevitable result. When we contemplate the crucifixion, we know what we are looking at. There is one focal point, and it is the culmination of the mortal life of the One who embodied the exemplary blend of humanity and divinity. There is no doubt as to where Saint Luke as a painter (widely believed to represent Zurbarán himself) is directing his focus in this image.

Compare Salvador Dalí's Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus) (1954):

[click to enlarge]

Dalí's depiction of the cross is unconventional, to say the least. For our purposes here, what is important is its three-dimensionality and, more specifically, the use of vanishing points to represent the shape in proper perspective. The form is clearly defined; the cross itself does not appear infinite; but still, its edges extending toward vanishing points give it a sense of motion, of continual movement through infinite space and time. This is not a terminal event being commemorated here; it is just one moment in eternity or, in other words, the beginning and the end (the Alpha and Omega): the beginning of immortality born of the end of mortality. The cross's position in mid-air—floating, as it were—almost certainly alludes to the resurrection—the rising from death. Already He is detached from the cross, rising from the crucifixion, because that wasn't really the end. Unlike in the Zurbarán painting above, it is unclear where the observer here is directing her gaze. This is not a completion-based, focal-point-centered image. Death is consumed in the vanishing point and from there new life expands and extends forever, not just for one but for all, everywhere in space and in time.

1 comment:

Th. said...


Fascinating analysis. Your take on the Dali is persuasive. I'd never really thought much about that painting before.