Every two years, Misereor, a German Catholic development agency, sponsors and sells a "Lenten Veil" produced by an artist from a non-Western country. The Veil it promotes in 2015-2016 has been painted by the Chinese artist Dao Zi. Benoit Vermander comments here on the theological meaning of the artwork.
For more information on the Veil: http://www.misereor.de/service/service-gemeinden/misereor-hungertuch.html
When confronted by an artwork, the viewer may legitimately "feel' and "read' it in a way that is different from the one suggested by its creator. Inspiring artworks open up a space of possibilities and interpretations that go beyond the intentions of the one who created it – like the life children that go far beyond the projects and wishes of their parents. I feel entitled to read Dao Zi's Lent Veil by starting from directions and insights that differ from the ones he had explicitly in mind. And such "deviant reading" is after all a way to pay homage to the depth and evocative power of a most intriguing work.
In the gold and ink that predominate in the Veil, I perceive the colors of God... The golden color speaks to me of the Godhead, of the eternal surge of the divinity out of his own self, of his explosion and yet of his perpetual gathering into One. Gold sings the source of life and light at her most original and at her purest. To put it another way, the island of golden light that stands at the center of this painting speaks to me of an inexhaustible treasure: the heart of the Father from whom the Word always flows and to which He also comes back. This explosion of light - that yet remains united and compact - tells me of "one thing that God has said, and two that I have heard" (Psalm 62:12): the Father gives everything to His Son, and, in His Son, God gives everything to us; at the same time (and this is the second thing that I hear out of the single Word that God eternally offers), God remains One in the loving embrace of the divine persons.
And yet, dots of gold are scattered around the original island of light... These dots tell me that God makes a dwelling within our very being, that when we obey the Word we are visited and invested by the Spirit who unites the Father and the Son. Each of the dots of gold shares in the Source of Light. Apparently, each dot is separated from the Source, but in truth it exists only within the Source and thanks to her. "God un ich sind dann eins – God and I are one then" (Meister Eckhart)
I can glance at the shape of the central glittering of gold for a long time... As I said, I see first an island of light standing in the darkness, something that speaks of an eternal beginning, a star maybe - or the sun in the morning. But in this shape I can also distinguish a head: the face of God as revealed suddenly on the cross. Sometimes, I see it also as a nail, as an opening in the flesh from which the ultimate mystery is revealed and hidden again. And at other moments it irresistibly suggests to me the cutting edge of the godhead: nothing and nobody can define the Source of all things but she ineffably penetrates all reality.
And now... the black or dark blue of the ink... I do not truly "see" it – I rather "feel" it. I feel a flux in it, the perpetual movement of a river, something that cannot be stopped, because it is the rhythm of life. It tells me that no analogy can adequately grasp the mystery of God, not even the one provided by the word "Light." God is the ultimate secret that one just cannot penetrate. God is the secret hidden behind time, behind space, behind all beginnings. God has no name, no face, no shape, no color, no time, God has no form out of which we could fathom an idea or an image. And it is only when we have meditated upon this radical "cloud of unknowing" that we can hear in truth the words whispered by John: "No one has ever seen God. The unique God, who is close to the Father's side, has revealed him." (John 1:18)
For sure, in this painting black and gold taken together are drawing the shape of a cross. It does speak of the cross of Christ that both hides God and ultimately reveals God's secret. Black and golden, the cross stands over the grisaille of our world and illuminates it. And the tears, blood and water that flow from the suffering flesh of Christ are changed into these seven dots of pure, radiant light. But I also see this crossing of lines as a sign meant to forbid us to enclose God in a representation, a concept or a definition. It speaks of the meeting of opposites: God is light and yet is hidden in the deepest darkness; God is both love and justice; God speaks to us through gold and black. God is beyond all time and space, and is revealed in the frailty of our history, the evanescence of our memories.
Also, I see in the crossing of these black and golden shapes the search of a balance between immobility and movement. Again, the dark flux of the horizontal line speaks to me of water, of a divine secret working throughout times and spaces like the river carves its bed. Earth and mountains glitter over the waters, stable as an immutable heart. God is an inexhaustible dynamism and an eternal quiescence. And Christ on the cross is both passively offered to human violence and actively accomplishes the loving will of the Father. This painting does not offer to the viewer a cross to contemplate from a distance. It rather invites us to enter into its movement and its rhythm, so that the Spirit may dispel our certainties and mental images. The cross that this painting draws is not a place to stay. It is an opening and a threshold.
And it is in the "mobility" of the work that I can sense the cultural background of the artist. The seals used by Dao Zi are mostly adorned by the characters for "One" and for "Three." Besides the obvious references to the Triune God and also to the nails of the cross, the paintings and the seals reminded me immediately of the chapter 42 of the Daodejing – the seminal Classic of the Daoist School:
"The Way begets the one
The one begets the two
The two beget the three
The three beget the myriad beings.
The myriad beings carry the shadow and embrace the light,
Blending their breaths into harmony."
The cosmology suggested by this famous mystical text speaks of a process of birth and generation that operates through gift and loss: the unfathomable Way – the Principle that is before all forms and things. It lets itself be numbered and divided. The Principle, once it is manifested as Triune, gives life to all beings. And life sustains itself through the balance of light and obscurity in which breathings are blended and harmonized. In such a perspective, the cross of Christ accomplishes the process through which God gives to the world not only some measure of life, but also the very principle of life, the essence of life and light that God is. And this gift is manifested in a blending of light and darkness: God exhausts the light that He is throughout the radiant breath He communicates to His Son and, through His Son, to all of us. God shares the fullness of His breath with His Son and receives it anew from His Son. The myriad beings blend their breaths into divine life as they originate themselves from such inexpressible exchange.
Coming again at the painting, I then read it as a meditation on the chapter 14 of the Daodejing:
"Looked at, but cannot be seen -That is called the Invisible.
Listened to, but cannot be heard -That is called the Inaudible.
Grasped at, but cannot be touched -That is called the Intangible.
These three elude our inquiries - And hence blend and become One."
And this makes me also listen differently to the question that goes with the artwork: " Wie viel is genug? How much is enough?"
Is such question merely about our needs, about how much "gold" we truly need in our life? For sure, assessing our real needs in the light of Jesus' teaching as well as of current world challenges is a discernment to be made – to be made at all cost one may say. But I also hear the question as being asked about God: how much is enough for God? And the implied answer would be: God never tires of giving Himself, of losing, sharing, exhausting His very being, God never gives enough of His breath and His light, He gives the whole of Himself to His Son, and then, by surrendering His Son to us, He exhausts and communicates everything He has and He is. When it comes to giving, there is never a "genug" – enough - for God. The question asked by the painting becomes the dynamic though which we surrender ourselves to God and our brothers and sisters. By both veiling and unveiling God's ultimate mystery, Dao Zi's painting open us the space where God's life and our daily life blend into the one and the same circulation of light, breathing and love.
(Edited by Michael Kelly)