Only great art can be great religious art. But many of the religious masterpieces of the past remain inaccessible to us today because the style and content of these works of art are unfamiliar to our eyes and to our knowing. The iconography, that is, the imagery and symbols that were part of the visual language of earlier ages, is no longer part of our visual vocabulary. Then, too, the slow, attentive, expectant perusal of a painting demands of us a discipline of seeing that is contrary to our habits in everyday living.
We all look at the visible world in a selective way. The focus of our attention is determined by our past experience and present interests. The constant selecting of what will be seen and how it will be seen is a kind of editorial activity of the conscious mind, an activity that ceaselessly shapes our individual seeing of the exterior world.
To abdicate consciously our own self-determined and self-centered way of seeing is not easy. But nothing less than a kind of self-abdication is demanded of us by a great work of art. It asks us to see it, if for only a few moments, in terms of the vision that it represents and expresses. Those who go to art galleries and museums confined within the vision of their own making tend to respond to paintings with “I like this one, that one I don’t like”—that is to say, this one accords with and confirms my own private, limited vision, whereas the second one does not.