This piece was inspired by a passage in Ernst Cassirer’s The Individual and The Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy:1 he notes there that Nicholas of Cusa (i.e., Cusanus; 1401-1464), in his work De visione Dei, says that his experience of looking at van der Weyden’s now-lost self-portrait was like trying to understand our relation with God: the painting’s eyes could follow multiple people wherever they sat or moved, just as God sees and participates with all beings everywhere at all times. A related point had been made about a century earlier by Meister Eckhart (c.1260-c.1328): “The eye with which I look on God is that with which He sees me.”
Only a household name to Sunday supplementalists, perhaps medievalists and Renaissance men too, the learned Nicholas of Cusa penned a fifteenth century treatise on the docta ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance), in which he said, in effect – omitting a nod to the Kena Upanishad – that to know is not to know, not to know is to know.
He sought to reveal how God reveals himself when you leave a scholastic mind behind and ascend to the cloud of unknowing, where you will find yourself – unlike those in our new millennium’s Cloud – in the only place worth being, which is in the presence of divinity.
Cusanus, while he thought he knew how to know God, still struggled for a word, a craft or device with which to instruct others in the way.
Even the vivid reds, yellows and blues of stained glass would not do, the light they bent entering the eye, stirring stories and fantasy, but not quite reaching the sacred heart of the matter.
In a time when visions were common but mirrors were not, to see the divine in yourself you had to look God in the face and the faith, diving into the very ocean of your looking, down to the depths of insight where you and God, as curious as newborns but blind as the dead, would recognize yourselves in each other.
Perhaps to see the uncanny, which is beyond vision, you have to discover that being witnessed can be as profound as bearing witness. Consider how, on a day of no other consequence, Cusanus found himself standing in the Town Hall of Brussels, gazing at, while being stared at by, the self-portrait of Rogier van der Weyden – an artist famous in his day, though overlooked in ours – whose painted eyes tracked Cusanus wherever he stood, whenever he moved, whatever he thought.
Though mystic, Cusanus was no saint, and van der Weyden, while talented, was no god. Yet this clever, Low Country canvas chronicler of nobles and burghers had carried off a transcendent creation, a trans-substantiation not of wine into blood or bread into body, but of paint into panopticon, his brush showing that a roving eye penetrates further than a fixed one, casting a look which can pin you in your place with every move you make.
Was it Rogier’s magic or Nicholas’ imagination that enabled Cusanus to watch himself watching the eyes and know they saw him the way he’d imagined God would see everyone? To view yourself, even for a moment, the way you thought God did, was also to understand something of God, and see what even a gifted but blind seer could not, be it Sophocles’ Tiresias or Shakespeare’s Gloucester, consultants to Oedipus and Lear, rulers lacking rosy prospects, who should have learned to listen better to oracles, friends and royal fools.
The self-portrait that eyed Cusanus while he was eyeing it, like most of Rogier’s other work, has long been lost, destroyed, stolen, burnt or bombed in Europe’s endless wars. We cannot look in its eyes the way Cusanus did, or know if it’s unfixed, inimitable gaze was on the canvas or in Nicholas’ way of looking at it, an image imagined.
Had van der Weyden learned a secret or a skill that God could not tolerate, so that He banished the very sight of that selfie from curiosity and history?
It is hard for us nowadays to take this conceit of a question seriously, to resist equating theodicy with idiocy, for we come from an age where talking about God is left to comedians, where hearing His voice is grounds not for prophecy but commitment, condemned as we are by every reflection in this land of glass to think that man’s best friend and lover is not his Maker but his mirror. ∎