Subject and Object

(James Tissot’s painting, Jesus Looking through a Lattice)

I continue to be fascinated by the distinction between subject and object. That is, between being the subject of the act of seeing, and being the object of someone else’s attention.

Typically, we act as if God and divine revelation are objects of our attention. Notice the way that we often speak about how people ‘seek God’ with the hope of ‘finding’ the divine presence. And yet, of course, God is not ‘lost;’ only we are! So, I think what we really seek is the experience of being ‘found,’ not only by someone who becomes a friend or a lover but most especially by God.

As Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep and his portrayal of the father in the story of the prodigal remind us, God seeks us. We can trace this idea back to the first chapters of Genesis where God seeks our primeval forebear by asking, “where art thou?”(KJV) From the beginning of Creation, we have been the object of God’s subjectivity long before we became personally conscious of it.

In two evocative paintings, James Tissot visually explores this inversion of perspective. These and many of his other 19th century watercolors curiously anticipate modern theatrical approaches to creating ‘scenes.’ His skill in this regard is most dramatically evident in his painting, What Our Savior Saw from the Cross (below). Portraying what we often think of as the decisive moment in salvation history, Tissot doesn’t show us Jesus as he suffers on our behalf. Instead, Tissot depicts the Lord’s loving regard for others who suffer because of their love for him. He who is so often the object of our devotional regard is represented as the subject of God’s attentive concern for us.

Much more subtle, yet equally significant I think, is his delightful painting, Jesus Looking through a Lattice (image at the top). I believe that this apparently whimsical image by Tissot actually embodies a profound spiritual and theological insight. For why does Tissot portray Jesus as looking at us, the viewers of this painting, peering at us through a lattice? Taking the image both literally and figuratively, has Jesus gone in to an inner chamber where he awaits us to join him? Or, have we gone out into the garden of our own pursuits while yet remaining within his view? Is he being coy, ‘spying’ on us (as we might say)? Or are we the ones who prefer to be somewhat hidden? Though both are possible, our usual instincts lead us to assume the former. Even though we are always the objects of divine loving regard, whether we are aware of it or not.

May we continue to experience the joy of being found by God.

 

The images above are by James Tissot ~ Jesus Looking through a Lattice, and What our Lord Saw from the Cross. Both water color paintings are featured in the exhibit, “James Tissot: Fashion and Faith,” at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. After February 9, 2020 the exhibit moves to Paris.

3 comments

  1. Perhaps Owen Barfield has something to offer: we participate in the reality of the things. The subject doesn’t determine the truth, nor does some sort of bare, raw objective fact.

    1. What a wonderful response ~ “…the subject doesn’t determine the truth…” Indeed, that about which we are becoming sensitive here is really significant. Your thoughtful comment alerts us to the importance of our use of words like ‘reality,’ ‘truth,’ and ‘objective fact.’ I am pleased to see your reference to Owen Barfield.

    2. Perhaps. I used the words ‘subject’ and ‘object’ primarily as nouns. Your probing comment appears to tilt toward the adjectival use of the related words, ‘subjective’ and ‘objective.’ These words tend to be used as qualifiers regarding states of perception and knowledge. The questions before us are related, but also differ significantly.

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