The essay "Fitly Framed Together" on this site provides the background knowledge for what follows.

       When a work of art has formal integrity, it unfolds organically within itself, and this unfolding within the work is continuous with an unfolding of the work toward the viewer, the way the work has of showing forth itself from itself, the act of being present which constitutes the picture plane as an event which transcends the physical dimensions of the canvas. A painting on a small surface -- for example, Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding Portrait in the National Gallery in London (below) -- can have a rhythmic vitality, a plenitude of existence, a splendor of being so expansive as to illuminate a beholder standing at a distance. It has more bigness than any billboard! The work possesses expansiveness, radiance, claritas. The expansiveness of a masterpiece arouses in the heart of the wakeful observer a reciprocal unfolding, an expansion or ecstasy. Goodness is diffusive of itself.


            Traditional art stands worlds apart from the attempt (often called ‘realism’) to copy the external appearances of things without magnifying the divine power (δύναμις) which creates and sustains them, or the divine wisdom which orders them -- as if they were “just there.”  Carried to an extreme, such “realism” (a late nineteenth century innovation, foreign to the old masters) results in lifeless effigies, superficial and frozen, and is blasphemous despite the artists’ intentions.

            Kinesthesis is the key to all the old masters. The modern masters sought to revive this tradition, which had become quite attenuated by the end of the nineteenth century as painters took to emulating photography. It is very difficult to combine skillful rendering with kinesthetic form as the old masters did; by the end of the nineteenth century it seemed to be a vanishing art -- largely because the culture had forsaken the metaphysical vision which supported it. Artists were tending more and more to render “photographically,” without metaphysical depth. In reaction to this trend the modern masters simplified and sacrificed rendering, while at the same time distorting contours in their pursuit of movement and space.



            If the lesson of Matisse is ignored, the otherwise commendable attempt to revive traditional art risks mimicking the comparatively shallow art of the late nineteenth-century academy, which had itself lost touch with the tradition of the old masters, just as the surrounding culture had lost the metaphysical sense of things, embracing a mechanistic vision.


Picasso famously shows us too many views of a head at once. The old masters often did likewise, to serve the kinesthetics of form. Below is an example by Ingres, a detail from his Bather in the Musee Bonnat. The kerchief suggests a partial back view of the head. The ear is held in tension with the acute angle of shadow between kerchief and neck, while the other features pull “too” far away to theleft. Finally Ingres shows us the far eye socket wrapping around toward us. The head unfolds across the canvas like a world map in Mercator projection.



            In traditional art, representation is thoroughly “abstract” in the sense that every line, shape, volume or tone, every nuance, must be rhythmically choreographed with every other. The strength of the representation is due to the abstract rhythmic structure. The reason for this, as we have shown, is the crucial link between artistic form and metaphysical form. As the painter Jean Bazaine puts it:

It seems therefore necessary that we should once and for all dissociate the ‘abstract’ from the ‘nonfigurative.’ The power of interiority, and of getting beyond the visible, which creation implies, does not depend upon the greater or smaller degree of resemblance between the work and external reality, but, rather, upon the greater or smaller degree of resemblance with an internal world that entirely envelops the external one and that expands itself up to the pure rhythmical motives of being. . . . Van Eyck may well represent the most extreme point ever reached by abstraction in the whole history of painting. [1]


Usually the soul is said to be interior to the body. But in the case of a saint or a masterpiece (both signs of a transfigured cosmos), the body is interior to the soul. The internal world entirely envelops the external one. The world, simultaneously internal and external, springs into existence from God’s creative act, an ongoing, sustaining and providential act. “In Him we live, and move, and have our being.” [2] Art is true to nature, and enlarges us with its beauty, when it draws strength and freshness from contact with this mystery. Art can be a sort of sacrament of the visible, effecting in itself the transfiguration of the world which it signals, and manifesting this to transform our attentive senses, hearts and minds. For art to thrive, the public ought to be taught how to see and appreciate the deep workings of form in masterpieces, while artists strive to recover the perennial and universal tradition.


James Patrick Reid

July 25, 2016



[1] Notes sur la peinture, pp. 56-57, quoted by Etienne Gilson, op. cit., 259.

[2] Acts 17:28 KJV