Sarah – Art as Revelation of an Unseen Essence.

Genesis 21:1,2 tells us, “And the LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did unto Sarah as he had spoken.  For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him.”

The Angel Appears to Sarah TIEPOLO (1726-28)

See for the source of the above photograph of the painting and comment.  Whether Tiepolo intended to comment so or not, the above-referenced commentator appears to take the view that the “Lord” appears to humans only through angels and that “visiting Sarah” was akin to the common Biblical interpretation of a man “knowing” a woman: as inpregnating her.  The commentator seems to come to that interpretation on the premise that Sarah was too old to conceive, and since God is represented in the flesh as an angel, Sarah conceived only by divine intervention and that via an angel.

A note about this painting and the prior post concerning the visit of the three angels to Abraham:  Christians reinterpreted that story to reflect their notion of the Trinity.  As finite beings, we can conceive of the infinite, or “divine things,” not directly but only as revealed to our imagination based upon actual experience.  That, of course, makes our understanding biased.  That’s okay; it’s normal; it’s necessarily so.  In his book, Law and the Modern Mind, Jerome Frank explores the concept of an “impartial judge.”  He maintains pure objectivity is a fiction.   Bias is inherent in all human activity and cannot be irradicated; one can best minimize its influence by recognizing it.

The role of experience in our thinking is addressed by Plato in his Allegory of the Cave: Suppose a prisoner, who knows nothing but a cave, were to escape and discover  the world in the light of day.  And then suppose that he then return to the cave to tell of his (or her) experiences. The other prisoners, who know only shadows of objects cast into the cave, will have no understanding of what is described as revealed  by light.

As I understand them, the orthodox Jewish and Muslim answer for the  inadequacy of image to represent the Divine is to prohibit any physical representation of God.  Jews don’t even utter, “God:”  to name God is to limit God, and their God is the Living God.  The medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, went so far in his Doctrine of Negative Attributes to hold that we cannot state what God is; we can only state what God is not.  “God” is always more than any statement that can be made about God.

Metaphor provides better reference to the Divine nature than any amount of descriptive language.  Rather than dictate, it invites the viewer or listener to bring his or her own experiences to bear on the subject so that the experience is more like a dialogue between the artist and the viewer than mere description of an event.  Rather than define truth, it points toward the truth.  Likewise with art: it is not necessarily intended as an exact replication of an historic event, but may reveal a deeper truth contained within the subject.   Marcus Borg expresses the notion citing an Indian story teller who began the telling with, “Now, I don’t know if it actually happened this way, but I know it’s true . . . ”

Frank also addresses the benefit of “as if” thinking.  Some experiences cannot be related directly.   Modern physicists discuss theories in analogies or metaphors, “as if” time-space were a stretched fabric warped by a metal object resting upon it; or metaphorically discussing string theory as though it were a tire inner tube.  Models are necessary for complex thinking and dialogue; and they can be most helpful when we recognize that our perceptions are not reality, itself, but are understood by our model of reality.  These models are helpful as long as we recognize reality “as if” it were the model.  They cease to be helpful when the model reaches its outer limits.  For example, Newtonian physics works very well as a mechanical model of reality within the “normal” range of experience.  But when one is dealing with velocities at, or approaching, the speed of light or the scale of atomic particles, it becomes inadequate as a model and must be replaced with another model that works.

In the same way, I think, art has the capacity to connect transcendent (infinite) experiences to human (finite) experiences through conscious “as if” thinking.   That occurs best when there is actual dialogue which invites mutual participation of artist and observer, as with metaphor.  I hope that you, the reader, bring to your exploration of the paintings in this post your own experience and thinking and that it engages you personally.  I also invite your contributions to this blog.

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