5 min read

Pesellino: making the vital visible

Great art doesn’t just delight, it educates. Andrew Davison recalls learning deep wisdom from a child as he reviews the Pesellino exhibition at the National Gallery, London.

Andrew works at the intersection of theology, science and philosophy. He is Canon and Regius Professor of Divinity at Christ Church, Oxford.

A painted altarpiece depicts a crucified Christ surrounded by followes, angels and soldiers.
The Pistoia Santa Trinita Altarpiece, Francesco Pesellino.
The National Gallery

My favourite idol features prominently in National Gallery’s new exhibition of paintings by Francesco Pesellino (1422–1457). I say that by way of provocation: I don’t really think it’s an idol, but that is how it was described to me – by a ten-year-old – in one of the best conversations I’ve ever had as a teacher.  

That was fifteen years ago. I was in the gallery to give a theological tour, as part of a Confirmation class for Westminster Abbey. Half an hour in, we came to Pesellino’s Pistoia Altarpiece. It’s a glorious painting, but I was unconvinced by what it sets out to do, with its dead Christ within a portrayal of the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is about the nature of God, as love and life, and there’s no death there.  

Not that I mean to single out Pesellino for criticism. He isn’t the only painter to represent God that way. Massacio’s version is one of the most significant works of the early Florentine Renaissance, resurrecting linear perspective in painting. Just down the road from the National Gallery, at the Courtauld Institute, there’s a similar painting of the Trinity by Botticelli. They’re all magnificent, I just think that if you’re going to try to depict God, the emphasis should be on life.  

Standing before Pesellino’s painting fifteen years ago, with those misgivings in mind, I asked the dozen or so kids in the Confirmation class what might be wrong with what the painter as trying to do. One child replied instantly: ‘Please Father, it is an idol.’ Dread rose within me. This child was an Arab Christian. Had he, I wondered, grown up in a culture that treated religious art as idolatrous? Had I offended his conscience continuously for the past half hour, with painting after painting? Best to find out. ‘Have the other paintings been idols?’, I asked. ‘No’, he replied. ‘Why not? Why is this one bad?’ His reply came without pause: ‘Because there’s God the Father in it.’ This was getting interesting. ‘So’, I asked, ‘it’s OK to show Jesus, like the other paintings we’ve seen today, but not God the Father?’ ‘Yes’, was his firm opinion. 

These are deep waters, and this was a thoughtful child. To this day, the Orthodox Churches generally forbid depicting of God the Father in icons. Then came one of the most glorious moments of my life as a teacher. ‘Why’s that?’, I asked. ‘Why can we paint Jesus, but not the Father?’ The boy stood silent for some moments. ‘Because’, he said, the cogs of his mind clearly turning, ‘because… because God has made an image of himself in Jesus… You could see Jesus… so you can paint him.’ This was no pre-packaged answer. He was not recycling anything he’d been told before. He was recapitulating the arguments of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (at Nicaea, in AD 787) in real time.  

The eight century was a turbulent time when it comes to religious images. They were supressed in the Byzantine Empire from around AD 730, with a firm condemnation in AD 754. Twenty-three years later, at Nicaea, the church reversed the ban. The decisive argument was formulated by St John of Damascus (AD 675 or 676 – 749): ‘When the Invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw a likeness of His form.’ It’s the same position as our young theologian in the National Gallery had got to on his own.  

In this way, Christian art rest on Christmas: on the Incarnation, on God’s coming-into-the-flesh. Heir to the Judaic prohibition of ‘graven images’ Christianity – or most of it – made its peace with depicting holy things, and art in churches, because of Christmas, where we see ‘God made visible’ in Jesus. 

In the mystery of the Word made flesh 

the light of your glory has shone anew upon our minds 

that seeing here God made visible,  

we may be caught up in love for God whom we cannot see. 

Those are words from the central acclamation of Christmas (the Eucharistic preface) at Midnight Mass (and at Holy Communion for the rest of Christmastide). ‘Seeing here God made visible’. 

The events of Christmas form one of the two poles of Christian art. Some delightful examples feature in the Pesellino exhibition: a virgin and child and an Annunciation. The other supremely worthy subject for Christian art is the crucifixion and all that surrounds it. As I have noted, in the current exhibition the crucifixion features in his Trinity altarpiece. God’s humanity is most clearly witnessed at the beginning of Christ’s life, and at the end.  

 In the intervening years, I have mellowed towards Pesellino’s painting, and that way of depicting something about God. Painting the eternal reality of God is impossible, but in Jesus we see what we need to see. There is no death in God, but the crucifixion is what God’s life looks like when it is made flesh in a world full of evil. The crucifixion shows God’s embrace of human life to the furthest extremes of suffering and degradation. It shows the life of God overcoming death. We can hold onto what the crucifixion offers in a painting like this one, while remembering that the Resurrection underlines the priority of God’s life over death. One painting can’t say everything.  

Those fifteen years ago, I was aware that I’d been in a remarkable exchange, one that I would not forget. As I found across my time as a curate, children ask the best theological questions. That might be reason to go to see the Pesellino exhibition with a child. Alongside the paintings I have mentioned already, there are also two gloriously child-friendly panels, each showing multiple events from the life of King David. They offer a sort of fifteenth century comic strip, except that the events are fused into one long scene. Pesellino was a master at painting animals. Magnifying glasses are provided to help you search them out. 


Pesellino: A Renaissance Master Revealed, The National Gallery, London, until 19 March. 

Film & TV
5 min read

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: 20 years on

Memory and the meaning of suffering.

Beatrice writes on literature, religion, the arts, and the family. Her published work can be found here

A coupe sit on outdoor steps against a blue sky. One holds a plate and the other looks towards them.
Carrey and Winslet as Joel and Clementine.

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004. Twenty years on, its stubborn insistence that the memory of pain gives meaning to our lives is as relevant as ever.  

I first watched Gondry’s cult classic earlier this year, in the midst of recovering from postnatal PTSD. When we are faced with heartbreak, it can be easy to wish that we could retreat from painful memories, hiding them away until the initial pang has seemingly died down. That was my experience, at least. But I quickly learnt that the traumatic memory of my daughter’s birth would continue to resurface until I processed it and accepted it as part of my life. Just so, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind teaches us that being vulnerable to suffering is a gift, that suffering itself is necessary to our moral growth, and that our ability to remember the past is an invaluable faculty of the human mind.  

The film begins simply, with a meeting between its protagonists, Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski. As Joel and Clementine start making small talk, they seem immediately comfortable, almost familiar with each other, and yet the atmosphere is eerie. Soon enough, we discover that Clementine was a patient at Lacuna, a clinic which erased every memory of Joel from her mind after their two-year relationship ended in a painful breakup. When Joel finds out, he asks Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the director of Lacuna, to do the same for him. As viewers, we now start to wonder: was that meeting we witnessed their very first, or have they met again after their memories were erased, unaware that they loved each other in a ‘past’ life? 

This tone of disorientation continues throughout the film, and that’s what makes it so special. As Joel’s memories of Clementine are erased one by one, he realises that the removal of one’s painful experiences is in itself a kind of trauma; what promises to be a relief, turns out to be nothing more than loss.  

We experience this sense of disorientation and loss alongside Joel as we jump through snippets of his and Clementine’s happiest and saddest moments together, trying to piece together in our minds a linear narrative of their relationship. While this is happening, the film’s subplot focuses on Stan, Patrick, and Mary, three young people working for Lacuna. As Stan and Patrick, the ‘technicians’, work on Joel’s memory removal, Mary, Lacuna’s naive receptionist, muses on the beauty of their mission. She begins quoting aloud the passage of poetry which inspires the film’s very title, taken from Alexander Pope’s verse epistle Eloisa to Abelard (1717): 

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! 

The world forgetting, by the world forgot. 

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! 

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d. 

Mary has an idealistic vision of her work: she believes she is helping suffering people experience the kind of ‘eternal sunshine’ that only a ‘spotless mind’ can achieve. But the human mind is not so simple. Joel’s desire for forgetfulness quickly turns nightmarish. As he realises he has made a mistake, he starts fighting to retain the memory of his love for Clementine, but his is a hopeless quest. Dr. Mierzwiak’s intervention ensures that the procedure is completed.  

Left alone without Stan and Patrick, Mary confesses to the married Dr. Mierzwiak that she is in love with him. It is at this point that her idealism crumbles down. He reveals that they’ve already had an affair in the past and that she agreed to let him erase its memory from her mind. Mary is devastated. She decides that what Lacuna is doing is unethical - even if Mierzwiak technically has the patients’ consent to the procedure - and releases the clinic’s files back to the patients. It is this decision which leads Clementine and Joel, just a few days after they ‘meet’ again, to discover that they’ve already loved each other in the past.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. 

Although the script of the film doesn’t spell it out, Mary’s story emphasises that the absence of painful memories is in itself experienced as a painful loss. What’s more, it shows that, without the memory of the suffering which we have inflicted on others, and which others have inflicted on us, we are incapable of moral growth. Thanks to the knowledge of the past, Mary is able, this time around, to resist having an affair with a married man. Just so, the final scene of the film, which sees Joel and Clementine vow to renew their relationship, is hopeful not in spite of the fact that they have regained the memory of the ways in which they hurt each other in the past, but precisely because of it.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. But that is what we were made for. Each one of us is called to endure pain in imitation of Christ, and, out of that pain, to discover a greater capacity for sacrificial love. We make meaning out of pain: that’s what human beings do.  

The very last lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind perfectly express the fruits of this Christ-like acceptance. As Joel reassures Clementine that he can’t see anything he doesn’t like about her, she expresses her doubts and anxieties: ‘But you will! But you will.’, she repeats, ‘You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.’ Joel and Clementine look at each other, and, after a pause, they simply say to each other: ‘Okay’. Their ‘okay’ is not an indication that they are doomed to repeat old mistakes. Rather, it signals a new choice: this time, when their relationship becomes difficult, they won’t just run away; this time, they will face discomfort, heartbreak, and disappointment, armed with the knowledge that seeking a sense of permanence by loving another person completely is an inherently valuable pursuit. In accepting the most traumatic parts of our past we grow closer to God; and in bravely deciding to look ahead to the future with hope, we catch a glimpse of the unadulterated joy which we will finally experience in God’s eternity.