Here’s a way to think about looking at art. When you see a piece you like, try to describe it as either beautiful or sublime. If something is beautiful, it provokes a sense of delight or wonder but at the same time seems confined to a place or time. Think of how it feels to see an azalea in bloom. If something is sublime, it still provokes a sense of wonder but it comes off as being beyond a place or time. It feels a little overwhelming, maybe, or as if we don’t know where it ends. I think of looking at images of outer space.
Applying this to art, here are two paintings of a similar subject by different artists: Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1490s) and Salvador Dali’s The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (1955).
Da Vinci’s piece is how I would describe beautiful. I love its balance. Christ is the focal point and his 12 apostles are arranged into four groups of three, which many think that was a symbolic nod to the Four Gospels and the Trinity. Da Vinci was capturing a historical scene, and specifically the particular moment after Jesus announced one of them would betray him. Incidentally, da Vinci was the first to paint the last supper at that instant. So what we see is confined to one room and one very tense moment in that room, that’s the limitation to time and place I mentioned. It’s striking but earthbound.
Dali’s painting is more how I think of sublime. It’s a scene, but all of that mist and translucence, along with God’s faceless torso at the top, make it feel like it’s not an actual place. Dali had rediscovered his devotion to Catholicism shortly before doing this painting and we think he wasn’t aiming to paint an event. We think he was trying to paint his own mystical experience of the Eucharist. The portrait of an experience feels more limitless than one of an event. That’s what I meant by saying the sublime isn’t bounded by time or place or that it doesn’t seem to end.
Anyway, both paintings come at you from different aesthetic angles. Which piece do you like better? Do you prefer to experience beauty or sublimity? I prefer Da Vinci’s piece overall. But on the question of beauty vs sublimity, I’ll just cop out and say it depends on my mood at the time.
This is one way to look at art, certainly not the only way. But if you try it out, I’d love to hear your thoughts which, as usual, are always welcome and appreciated!