Book Review: Looking at a Masterpiece

Art and Liturgy - Looking at a Masterpiece - Madeleine Stebbins 3Looking at a Masterpiece. By Madeleine Stebbins. Emmaus Road Press, 2017. 176 pp. ISBN 9781945125249. $54.95.

Over the last few weeks I have been slowly making my way through Looking at a Masterpiece, a wonderful new book by Madeleine Stebbins.

A compilation and expansion of her article series for Lay Witness magazine, Stebbins offers short reflections on 43 great paintings of the Western tradition. Rich and vibrant reproductions of these works fill the page and engage the heart. The book itself is really gorgeous, worthy of its topic.

Art and Liturgy - Looking at a Masterpiece - Madeleine Stebbins 2

The author claims not to be an art historian or art critic, and it is true that Looking at a Masterpiece contains little in the way of history or criticism. Instead, she delivers compelling insights on the spirit of a painting, reflections that border on mystical in their clarity and freshness.

Elizabeth Lev has noted that “art history, which came of age in the secularizing nineteenth century…often seems submerged in a quagmire of interpretative methodologies from the purely stylistic to the doggedly archival to the mood swings of Marxist, gender, or psychological approaches.” ¹ Needless to say, academia tends to miss the point entirely when it comes to sacred art.

It’s refreshing, then, to encounter artistic commentary without the common focus on the historical or archival context of the work — which I generally enjoy — or on technical things like brushstrokes and perspective — which I don’t.

Instead, in the Catholic contemplative tradition, the reader is encouraged simply to be with the painting, to rest in it and reflect on it, to feel its spirit, and to consider the Truth it points us toward.

Art and Liturgy - Looking at a Masterpiece - Madeleine Stebbins 1Looking at a Masterpiece is engaging and accessible even to those who might not “have an eye for art.” Truly, the book’s best quality is its simplicity, but that’s because beauty is itself simple. The author does not hunt for hidden meanings and heavy analyses of each sign and symbol. These have their place, but they are not needed. Beauty speaks for itself. Stebbins proposes some thoughts, but then gets out of the way, allowing the reader ‘to be wounded by the arrow of Beauty that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes.’ ²

It is a rare mind who can consider Fra Angelico and Winslow Homer with the same depth and sensitivity. In a commentary on my favorite painting, Giotto’s Lamentation of Christ, Stebbins gives a sort of precis for the whole book: “Great art challenges us to reach another level. It expands our human hearts immeasurably. We start to see everything in the light of Christ.”

Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that

the centuries-old conciliar tradition teaches us that images are also a preaching of the Gospel. Artists in every age have offered the principal facts of the mystery of salvation to the contemplation and wonder of believers by presenting them in the splendour of colour and in the perfection of beauty. ³

I have written before that we don’t marvel enough as a society. I have also said that man is made to delight. In a noisy and brutish culture, we are lucky to have a guide like Madeleine Stebbins in marveling and delighting, contemplating and wondering.

¹ Lev, Elizabeth. “Recapturing Sacred Art from Secular Bondage.” Sacred Architecture Journal 31 (2017): 34.

² A combination of quotations from Cardinal Ratzinger’s address, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty” (August 2002).

³ Ratzinger, Joseph. Introduction to Compendium: Catechism of the Catholic Church. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006.