Many things about this painting look familiar to anyone brought up in the Christian tradition. But what we see depends on what we know.
The painting is called All Saints Day. It shows Jesus presiding over a gathering of all those saints, known and unknown, the day is meant to honor. We recognize Jesus from other representations we have seen of him. He is Christ of the fair skin, bearded, long haired, cloaked in the red that is a symbol of his resurrection. He sits in a cloud-filled heaven, surrounded by a halo of soft light shot through with gold, a halo that confirms that he is divine. His arms reach out toward all those around him. His feet rest on a blue globe, a symbol of unity and completeness.
His mother Mary sits by his feet, a little below him in the hierarchy. She is dressed in white and blue, colors symbolic of purity and spirituality. A dove flies in the halo above him, a symbol of the Holy Ghost. The third halo above them all completes the Christian trinity.
The saints are gathered around him, resting on clouds. Some of the figures are familiar to those who know their stories – like Moses with his tablets, Noah with his ark, King David with his harp. These saints are a motley crowd, different from each other in dress, complexion, attitude. And they are many, a multitude – their figures fade away into the distance.
Above them the angels hover. They hold other symbols – a cross, symbol of Christ’s crucifixion; a column, symbol of Christ’s flagellation; a ladder, symbol of his transcending the human condition.
When Johann Konig painted this luminous work sometime in the early 17th century he was following many of the conventions of his time. The colors and symbols he used told their own story to those who understood their meaning, adding depth and weight to his work. They also spoke to those who could not read words but understood the language of symbols.
Happily, the symbols are woven into the painting in a way that allows anyone to appreciate the beauty of the work, whether or not they understand everything in it.
We are drawn to the painting by the way it is composed. Our eyes take in the lively figures in the ranks of the saints and angels and follow their looks and gestures toward the figure of Christ and the halo of light around him. His outward gesture leads our gaze back again to look at those around him. It helps that the figures look natural and full of life, and that the colors have a richness and beauty of their own.
What we see depends on what we know…