Dreams and Visions Compare: How Can Art Represent That Which Is Unseeable?
St. Francis of Assisi
Artist / Origin: Francisco de Zurbaràn (Spanish, 1598–1644)
Date: ca. 1640
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: H: 81 ½ in. (207 cm.), W: 42 in. (106 cm.)
Location: Museu de Arte de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain
Credit: Courtesy of Bridgeman Art Library
The Four Sleepers
Artist / Origin: Mokuan Reien (Japanese, d. 1345)
Region: East Asia
Date: 14th century
Period: 1000 CE – 1400 CE
Material: Ink on paper
Dimensions: H: 27 ½ in. (70 cm.), W: 14 in. (36 cm.)
How can art represent that which is unseeable?
Art has been used in many cultures and at many times as a way of giving concrete form to mystical or spiritual experience. In this way, it has made the dreams, visions, and spiritual journeys of the privileged few accessible to a wider community. In these images, however, the experience of the religious figures—whether a state of ecstasy or awakening—remains internalized. Rather than giving the viewer direct access to these experiences, the images urge the viewer to cultivate his or her own.
Questions to Consider
- Each of these images offers a quiet moment—rest in one case, reflection in the other. At the same time, each depicts what might be understood as a moment of transcendence. How does each image express or hint at a state of profound spiritual revelation?
- How do the formal elements of these works (e.g., light, composition, color, etc.) condition your responses to them? Do you think that these images are able to convey their messages through visual language alone? What does knowledge of religious and historical context add to your understanding of each work?
- These works were both likely intended to provide models for the pious. In this case, why do you think they present their figures’ spiritual experiences in terms that are internal, hence not visible to the viewer? How might such images be effective in ways that more tangible manifestations of spiritual experiences are not? How might they be less effective?