Animating Art Through Meditation

Arthur Zajonc explores how art can come to life through contemplation, and guides us through a simple exercise that will help us experience art in this exciting way.

When invited by one of Amherst College’s curators  to lead an exercise for meditations at the Mead Art Museum, I selected Ary Scheffer’s large 1856 painting of Paolo and Francesca (pictured above). The illicit love these two had for one another placed them in Dante’s swirling second circle of the Inferno. From the shadows on the right of the painting, Virgil and Dante pensively observe the torments of the couple’s eternal loveless embrace.

Contemplative engagement with a work of art can, quite literally, help bring it to life. In our conversation after the meditation on Scheffer’s painting, one of the participants remarked that it was as if the painting had been asleep, and through the meditation it woke up – came alive. Her experience was not unlike Rilke’s as he repeatedly went to view the paintings of Cézanne while in Paris in 1907. Again and again Rilke returned to the gallery where Cézanne’s paintings hung. On October 10 he could finally write, “for a long time nothing, and suddenly one has the right eyes.” The paintings that had been so enigmatic and elusive came to life, so that Rilke could breath in their beauty and truth. He…