Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come

Julian Bell writes:

People talk of painted eyes in portraits that ‘follow you round the room’. T.J. Clark, in the third of the six essays collected in his new book, Heaven on Earth, strangely inverts this. Studying the hall depicted in Poussin’s Sacrament of Marriage (now in Edinburgh), he senses that a painted figure’s eyes – eyes that are out of sight – are moving across the space, their attention straying sideways. He dwells on a thin strip of brushwork to the far left of the canvas. The strip is separated from the rest of the scene by a foreground column, the left edge of which catches light from a rear window that can just be glimpsed – a still narrower strip of glare – abutting the canvas edge. Between column and window, the darkness of the room is broken by sunshine falling on a golden headdress and the folds of blue robes below. These evidently belong to a woman, half-hidden by the column, whose back is turned to the viewer. Which way, however, does this woman turn her face? Towards the centre of the crowded room, Clark suggests at first; towards the rite of betrothal binding the Virgin Mary to Joseph, an act that causes the branch that Joseph holds to burst into flower. The woman behind the column ‘is the very figure of attention’, Clark writes. ‘She is the one of all the spectators, we are convinced, who looks hardest at the miracle.’

(LRB 7 February 2019)