The French painter Marie-Denise Villers painted her most famous work, Young Woman Drawing, in 1801. It is a masterpiece and it is now widely believed that the painting is a self portrait. Every detail is powerfully communicative, from the way the light touches the folds of her dress and the strands of her hair to the posture with which she sits to draw her subject, presumably looking into a mirror. Though I was born more than two centuries after Villers and I know virtually nothing about her, just looking at this image makes me feel like I am in relationship with her.
Of course, this is part of the idea behind iconography. It is one of the reasons why so many icons portray Christ or the saints staring out at us. Icons are meant to be windows into the figures they depict. By seeing a saint’s image on an icon, we have a focus for calling out to that saint and offering our devotion. But neither Jesus nor the saints painted their own icons. What makes a self portrait so compelling to me is the idea that this is the artist’s own best expression of herself or himself. By painting herself, Villers has left behind a small piece of herself by which we can come to know her far more intimately than if the painting had been done by anyone else.
Over the past year, I have been reading and studying Saint Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Based on 129 Wednesday audience talks that the pope gave between 1979 and 1984, it is breath taking in its scope. The Church has not yet really begun to plumb its depths, and I have personally only scratched the surface of the surface, but if I were to try and sum up the central animating principle of this work, I would say that the human body is designed to speak to us the Gospel. This is part of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. From Genesis through Revelation, the Scripture reveals to us over and over again that our bodies are God’s self portrait.
Central to this observation is the notion of sexual complementarity. This can be confusing, particularly since what John Paul means by sexual complementarity is different from how most Evangelicals use that term. What John Paul means is that our maleness and femaleness are not arbitrary. In the very ordering of our bodies as men and women, we see the attributes of God displayed. As men and women relate to each other, particularly in the Sacrament of marriage and in the bond of sexual union, there is expressed there a mystical unveiling of God’s own self. The love, fidelity, and fruitfulness of marriage, expressed through our bodies, is an icon of the love, fidelity, and generativity of God.
I find this to be such a beautiful idea, not just because it gives me an insight into the nature of God, but because of how blessedly affirming it is of bodies. To think of my body and the bodies of other people as holy icons is to re-imagine what the body is all about. Despite my imperfections, my extra pounds, my creeping gray, my body is a self portrait of God. And that is also true for other people, regardless of their size and shape, age, or the color of their skin.
Moreover, it means that I have something to learn from the bodies of women that is far greater than what the culture tells me women’s bodies are all about. The prevalent wisdom of western culture, written large on just about any blank surface, is that our bodies exist only for personal pleasure, and that women’s bodies in particular are made solely for the use and enjoyment of men. The Theology of the Body turns that deeply sinful notion upside down. It says that our bodies are holy and meant to point far beyond themselves to the very source of holiness. As I learn what it means to be a man, understanding the masculine nature of my body, I gain some insight into God. But just as importantly, as I learn to see femininity for what it really is, realizing the true blessedness of what God has expressed in the bodies of women that is different from what He has expressed in the bodies of men, I come to a fuller, richer picture of who God is and how He is at work in the world.
Of course, there is always the danger that the sign gets confused for the thing it signifies. As much as I love Marie-Denise Villers’ self portrait, I realize that it is not actually her. It is only a sign of the truth of who she is. If she were in the room with me, it would be ludicrous for me to ignore her in favor of the portrait. Likewise, the body is a sign of the reality of God, but God is in Himself much more than what He has expressed through His creation. The right way to appreciate the body is to see it the same way we see an icon, not as the thing that it depicts but as a doorway that can lead us into greater relationship.
All of this makes me wish I could paint. Alas, I cannot. But I am grateful for the gift of art in this world that points to the existence of God’s great majesty, just as I am grateful for God’s own artistry that draws each of us into the mystery of His love.