On the top floor of the Accademia in Florence, in an overlooked panel of a medieval altarpiece, is an image that’s easy to ignore: a shepherd’s dog, barking at the angel who’s suddenly appeared to rouse the obviously startled shepherds from their sleep.
There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.
What’s the artist’s name? I don’t know. But two things are certain: The artist was mortal, in a body like mine, made of dust and bound to return that way. And that artist knew how to notice, and knew that attention, awareness, thoughtfulness are the slim tethers between our mortal life and whatever’s beyond it. Stubbornly earthbound, we nevertheless notice, and yearn. Art that lasts is art that will be the record of that. This artist near a millennium dead, with commission and task and busyness of pigment-grinding and bishop-placating and deadline-meeting, nevertheless took a moment of pure noticing, and pure delight, for themselves and us: if a great glowing trumpeting angel appeared in the sky above a sleeping flock, wouldn’t any self-respecting dog bark to raise the alarm? Of course it would. Because that’s how dogs are. Then and now.
I began 2020 in Europe with my students and the prayer that grows sharper with every year: in so much distraction and confusion, let me help them to see that this present moment is not all there is, or all that there will be. Help me to turn their gazes around, and down, and up, and everywhere. Help me to foster their curiosity, and their generosity, and their noticing – which are all aspects of the same human becoming.
Help me to set their hands on that same slim tether between themselves and all those who have gone before, and those yet to be. And to feel the energy of that pulse, moving us all through time, into a future marked by apprehension and hope.
Because here in our world with us is art, which counsels, and abides with us, and lasts.
Merry Christmas, y’all.