A distinguished art critic was studying an exquisite painting by the Italian Renaissance master Filippino Lippi one day. He stood in London’s National Gallery gazing at the fifteenth century depiction of Mary holding the infant Jesus on her lap, with saints Dominic and Jerome kneeling nearby, but the painting troubled him. There could no doubting Lippi’s skill, his use of colour or composition. But the proportions of the picture were slightly wrong: The hills in the background seemed exaggerated, as if they might topple out of the frame at any minute onto the gallery’s polished floor. And the two kneeling saints just looked awkward and uncomfortable.
Robert Cumming was not the first to criticize Lippi’s work for its poor perspective, but he may well be the last to do so, because at that moment he had a revelation. It suddenly occurred to him that the problem might be his. The painting he was analyzing with clinical objectivity was not just another piece of religious art hanging in a gallery alongside other comparative works. It had never been intended to come anywhere near a gallery. Lippi’s painting had been commissioned as an altarpiece, intended to hang in a place of prayer.
As so, self-consciously, the dignified art critic in the public gallery dropped to his knees before the painting. And suddenly he saw what generations of art critics had missed. From his newfound position of humility, Robert Cumming found himself gazing up at a perfectly proportioned piece. The foreground had moved naturally to the background, while the saints seem settled – their awkwarness, like the painting itself, having turned to grace. And as for Mary, she now looked intently and kindly directly at him as he knelt at her feet between saints Jerome and Dominic.
It was not the perspective of the painting that had been wrong all these years – it was the perspective of the people looking at it. Robert Cumming on bended knee had found a beauty that Robert Cumming the proud art critic could not. All these years, the joke had been upon the succession of experts standing, studying, and analyzing instead of kneeling humbly in prayer.
An excerpt from The Vow by Pete Greig.