In art, as in language, there have always been two forms of vision, sight and insight. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance "reality" was not considered to be in this world which is ever-changing and poorly perceived by our senses. Almost everyone in the Renaissance, regardless of their sect, thought that true reality was elsewhere where forms remained pure and constant. A popular tract, published by Martin Luther in 1516, argued that the right eye had the power to see into the eternal while the left eye saw the material world we know. The two together, though, cannot function as they ought to simultaneously. The left eye must shut off this world for the right eye to see eternity. This tradition has been widely used ever since and is still practiced today. It has, however, hardly ever been recognized, with James Hall a rare and notable exception.1 Among secular artists in tune with the Western tradition, an open eye signifies perception of this world, a closed one insight into the imagination.
Art historians used to think that Realists and Impressionists only used outsight, a complete misunderstanding of their method as some examples below will show. Insight, though, the ability to see through the appearance of exterior reality to a greater truth, often occurs subconsciously. Since both are important to making art, and both crucial skills for those seeking greater wisdom, they are frequently symbolized in both painting and sculpture. Once you know about this idea, you will recognize it easily in figures with one eye open and one closed. Whether the open one symbolizes insight or out-sight may, however, vary from case to case. Other, less common, methods of portraying sight and insight are described in the individual entries below.
1. I am indebted to James Hall for the information on Luther's tract and how in the Renaissance both eyes were not thought to function simultaneously. See Hall, “Spiritual or Sinister?”, Art Quarterly, Autumn 2008, pp. 32-5
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