Getting inside the picture
Beginning in the Middle Ages, manuals for prayer and meditation encouraged readers to intensify their emotional engagement in sacred narratives by mentally projecting themselves into the stories. A passage from The Meditations on the Life of Christ illustrates how a worshiper might have used a painting of the Adoration of Christ as a springboard for meditative fantasy:
You also, kneel and adore your lord God, then his mother, and salute the holy and venerable Joseph respectfully. Then kiss the feet of the infant Jesus who is laid in his bed, and ask Our Lady to give him to you and allow you to pick him up. Receive him and hold him in your arms. Look at his face with attention and kiss it with respect….Then give him back to his mother and look well how she suckles him, cares for him, and serves him in all things with solicitude and wisdom. Thus, you also, keep yourself ready to help her if you can…. Serve Our Lady and the child Jesus as much as you can.*
The greater naturalism of fifteenth-century religious paintings over that of previous centuries enhanced the viewer’s ability to imaginatively enter into the depicted scene. By fostering emotional identification with sacred figures and incidents, paintings drew the faithful toward a profound, perhaps even visionary, experience of their faith.
* Pseudo-Bonaventura, Meditations on the Life of Christ, in Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy, trans. Lydia Cochrane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 323.