Reading Paintings

Enée racontant à didon les malheurs de carthage

I was once in a required counseling session for school, (well, really ‘spiritual direction’…differing from counseling moreso in that you don’t come to a spiritual director to ‘solve a problem’ persay, just to experience a counselling-like atmosphere…I was really only there for the grade), where anyways, the instructor brought out a painting of Jesus with four children.


This week’s Bible reading: the Gospel of Matthew (28 Chapters)

Psalms for the week: Psalms 1-7

Canticle for the week: Exodus 15 (Miriam’s Song)1Exodus 15:1-21

Book of Diverse Devotion: Thread 1, Reading 1 (One)


The painting was clearly in a more classical style, think before the 20th century, and he wanted to do something called visio divina today, which basically means, ‘look at a painting and tell me how you feel about it’. I told him I did not quite know how to ‘read’ the painting, since I have never been formally trained in such, and he said “you’re not supposed to read paintings, it can be about whatever you want…” clearly resembling the post-modern mindsight.

Well, actually, classical paintings are meant to be read. They depend on signs and symbols, postures and lighting, etc. etc. Here is the National Gallery’s brief advice on reading paintings.

Reading a painting is similar to reading a book:

  • The reader decodes symbols to establish meaning
  • The reader uses inference and deduction (e.g. body language) to deepen understanding
  • A reader’s previous knowledge and experience affects their personal response

You could take the connection further:

  • The reader refers back to what they’ve read to explain their opinions
  • As understanding grows, the subject comes to life in the reader’s imagination, in a way that reaches beyond the page or frame

However, there are two important differences between reading a book and reading a painting. With a book we have to imagine the scene, whereas with a painting it is created for us (as it is with a film). Secondly – and this is where a painting differs from both a film and a book – the artist has only one frame through which to communicate.

So when we read a book, we convert, via our imaginations, what is black and white on the page into multicolour images. When we read a painting, the potential barrier of text is removed and we can leap straight into multicolour.

In this way, the visual image is immediately accessible and engaging. Secondly, due to the artist’s distillation of the subject matter into a single image, a painting requires a longer look than is usual in our digital culture.

By looking closely and then exploring what is seen together as a group, we can make a raft of shared and personal connections.

Spending time looking and exploring with pupils is rewarded by a depth of engagement and a sophisticated level of understanding about a painting’s context, which provides a platform for confident and committed oral and written work.

Here is an interesting video on it. For example, the death of Socrates.

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