Art Spotlight: Jan Provost's Eye of God

A Christian Allegory by Jan Provost Peter Willi/SuperStock/Getty

Here at Stuff to Blow Your Mind, we've been known to contemplate the idea of God from time to time, so I feel it's perfectly within the scope of the mission here to consider the 16th century painting "Sacred Allegory" or "Christian Allegory" by Flemish artist Jan Provost. There's a lot going on here, but it's that Saruon-esque eye that really captures the imagination.

It's a mysterious painting. We have no idea who commissioned it or what its original function or location might have been. Yet, according to art historian Geert Warnar's chapter in "Image and Incarnation," we can decipher much of its cryptic meaning through an understanding late-medieval Christian mysticism and meditation techniques.

Given the depicted all-seeing eye of God -- and the upward-gazing eye of the human soul -- it's easy to ascertain the importance of vision in the work. Medieval thinkers often contemplated the experience of the senses, so their relation to spiritual experience was a common enough theme. In particular, Warnar connects the painting to the 1453 treatise De visione Dei (On the Vision of God) by Nicholas of Cusa (who you may remember from our podcast episode on infinity).

In the text, Cusa instructs the reader in the use of an "icon of God" that depicts "someone who sees everything." We don't know what the icon looked like, but Cusa describes its use as a meditative aid for contemplating God's omnipresent nature and the "experience of absolute sight." You hang it on the wall and, wherever you walk in the room, it always seems to have you in its gaze -- you know, like a creepy painting in a horror movie.

It's possible, therefore, that Provost might have taken inspiration from Cusa in creating his "Sacred Allegory" as a visual aid for prayer and meditation on the nature of God. Let's take a closer look...

Stare into the eye...
Peter Willi/SuperStock/Getty

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.