Vanishing Points

How does a body emerge from a cave, except by studying the interplay of light over living forms?

These days, it’s easy and modern seeming for any semi-conscious person to feel alienated in a dark place, but fortunately it’s also possible to find relief. I’ve been reading odds and ends from those writing in the Dark Ages during a time when the greatest artistic and scientific achievements of Western civilization had been demolished in a misguided bout of religious fervor. Whole civilizations had regressed to illiteracy, and yet. Even from these dark ages came the stained glass of great cathedrals, promising that the light of another world was dominant, and once inside the nave, it was possible for the vulgar desolation to diminish, eyes drawn upward to the light filtering above, in tinted bands that called to mind images of a divine presence reaching in––not to mention the flourishing illuminations of non-Western civilizations of which the Western mind was largely still ignorant, whether by hubris or circumstance. I was reading about these times and the gradual and then sudden awakening that followed. Naturally, one arrives upon discussions of certain shifts in insight that marked the movement from one era to another, and among these are Leon Battista Alberti’s 1435 treatise, Della Pitura (On Painting) from the translation by John R. Spencer (revised, 1966).

The following is adapted in my usual manner of a hungry person looking for something to live on, and borrows phrases from the translated text. 


While the process of learning may fatigue, it is good to remember, art is not unworthy of consuming all our time. This because of its divine force, which makes absent men present and the dead seem to live. To paint a god beautiful is to strengthen the heart’s instinct to worship, and what is this painting, anyway? Consider it a matter of describing a space, organizing contents, and receiving light.

Consider also that a thin veil can be of use, to place between the eye and what is seen. May the lines be so fine they are invisible.

It is so difficult to imitate the movements of the soul. Doubters should try painting laughter on a face. Tell me that it doesn’t look like weeping. You can’t, can you? Thought so. Let’s begin.