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Leonardo: Sfumato

Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

Leonardo: Sfumato

Tom Elenbaas

The word "sfumato" is an artist’s term. It comes from the Italian language and is derived from "fumo" (smokefume). In English, it means that something is blurry, vague, or even softened. When you look at the world, your eye naturally does the work of sfumato. It blurs the areas not in focus. Since the Iphone 8, Apple has tried to use the built-in camera to make us all better photographers with what they call, “portrait mode.” Sfumato. You know those pictures you love, where the things in focus are clear and clean, but the background is blurred - mimicking how your eye actually views reality? Sfumato.

I first learned of this word while studying Leonardo Da Vinci. Walter Isaacson, in his amazing work on DaVinci, calls sfumato the hallmark of Leonardo’s art. Painters before him would draw clean, hard lines. (see the photo of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and DaVinci’s Mona Lisa to see a comparison) Even on his most famous contemporaries - Michelangelo - uses cleaner, hard, more distinct lines. Leonardo was convinced that this just isn’t the way we see the world. Our eyes focus, and there is periphery. In a painting, the blurred edges and corners invites your imagination about the wider portrait.

When you paint shadows and their edges, which cannot be perceived except indistinctly, do not make them sharp or clearly defined, otherwise your work will have a wooden appearance.

-Leonardo DaVinci

I’ve been struck by this metaphor since I read about it sometime a couple years ago. I’ve wondered if it isn’t helpful and a wonderful metaphor for so many other things. Poetry, for instance, is best when there is an economy of words and the spaces are left to your imagination. Good novels focus on some characters, but leave others up to your imagination. And even teaching. If we build clean lines and expect clear recitation, won’t we all be merely engineers? (Forgive me, engineers; your place is important, and even engineers are best with some art).

Good art requires some blurriness, some Narnian wardrobe through which we can enter the coniferous grove of possibility.

Which brings me to both theology and the church. I’ve wondered if the all-too present drive towards the right systematic theology, a clean and hard-lined moral vision, and a righteousness focused daily approach seek to make clear what is too often sfumato. The older I get, the more complex theology and right living become. Leonardo did not think art was unimportant. He did not believe that how you paint the lines didn’t matter. To the contrary, he took art to a more realistic level and a type of mastery that confounded his contemporaries and has immortalized his place in the world of the artist’s eye. In the same way I am not suggesting that morality, righteousness, good theology, truth, or right-thinking don’t matter. Actually, the opposite is true. I wonder if what we need today are more followers of Jesus and more theological and moral leaders who are able to make sense of the complexity of representing reality, and can be humble about what is clear in this moment with this portrait in this reality while allowing for blurred lines, smokey edges, and humble imagination about things out of focus.

I wonder. Are theology, pastoral leadership, exegesis, and the priestly and prophetic role of speaking from the seat of holiness served more humanly by approaching our canvases with the tools of the DaVinci-type artist?

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