Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
Our days are filled with things that compete for our attention. Our jobs, our families, and our friends demand our time. This doesn’t include the new hobbies that interest us or the side ventures we want to take. Everything demands our time.
But what about our spiritual fulfillment? Is this getting the attention it needs and deserves?
The business of our day-to-day lives can distract us from what’s best for us. It’s easy to forget that we can only be good at our jobs and for our family and friends if we are first good to ourselves.
To me, David Teniers the Younger’s painting “Guardroom With the Deliverance of Saint Peter” reminds us to be good to ourselves.
‘Guardroom With the Deliverance of Saint Peter’
To understand Teniers’s painting, we must know the backstory. Peter, an original disciple of Jesus, was arrested and jailed by King Herod for spreading the truth and goodness of God. In jail, Peter is met by an angel who tells him to escape. Peter follows the angel to the jail entrance and walks out without anyone noticing him.
Teniers shows the moment when Peter escapes jail. We can see Peter and the angel in the very back on the right side of the painting. The angel is shown pointing toward the exit, and Peter’s hands are clasped in prayer.
The rest of the painting is filled with guards ignorant of Peter’s escape. There are three guards to the left, four in the middle, and four on the right near Peter and the angel.
On the left, one guard sits and rests his head against a support column while another guard smokes his pipe and puts his hand toward the fire in front of him. The third guard stands behind these two and looks toward the group of guards in the middle, who are playing a game of dice.
The four guards to the right stare at something outside of the picture plane. A dog at the bottom right stares at an unruly pile of items at the bottom left. This pile includes armor, weapons, clothing, and a drum, and their haphazard arrangement creates a subtle sense of unrest.
Escaping Our Prison
How might Teniers’s painting remind us to be good to ourselves?
I think it’s helpful to look at the characters in this painting as multiple aspects of one person. All of these people represent certain ways in which we divide our attention.
Sometimes, we are captivated by the excitement of playing a game with friends like the men in the middle. Sometimes, we’re enticed by the comforts of life represented by the men to the left, who sleep and warm themselves by the fire.
And sometimes, curiosity gets the best of us like the group of men to the right, who are distracted by what’s hidden behind the wall.
At first glance, these men appear to be doing everyday things. None of these things are bad in and of themselves. Taken to an extreme, however, they can cause us to neglect our spiritual well-being.
Our spiritual well-being, of course, is represented by Peter and the angel. Peter is imprisoned by the figures that represent our distractions. Here, it’s the distractions of comfort, entertainment, and curiosity that imprison our spiritual side.
How does Peter free himself from this prison? How might we be good to ourselves? Peter holds his hands in prayer, which lets us know that he has faith. It is because of Peter’s faith in God that the angel comes to him and leads the way to freedom.
Does Teniers suggest that Peter’s faith is the key to his freedom? Teniers paints an armored glove pointing at a physical key at the bottom of the composition. No one in the painting is paying attention to the key. Does he want us to see it?
I think Teniers wants us to know that the physical key is not the actual key to Peter’s freedom. Here, the physical key is useless and ignored. Instead, faith is the key; Peter’s clasped hands represent his unshakable belief in God, and it is this that sets him free.
So how do we take good care of ourselves? How do we make sure that we mind our spiritual well-being?
The key is strong faith in the truth and goodness of God. So no matter how busy our lives get, how many people or things demand our attention, or how comfortable we become, we must make sure to make time for the truth and goodness of God.
Even if it’s in the background of our lives, as Teniers has depicted it in the background of his painting, our belief in God is still at the heart of our stories.
God’s truth and goodness are the keys to freeing us from the many demands of life; this is how we take good care of ourselves.
Have you ever seen a work of art that you thought was beautiful but had no idea what it meant? In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret the classical visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We try to approach each work of art to see how our historical creations might inspire within us our own innate goodness.
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist, and a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).