In the spring of 1984, Byzantine and Renaissance art was permanently searing itself into my subconscious as I visited church after church in Rome and Florence. My college overseas study program in Italy seemed like the logical and perhaps obligatory artist’s pilgrimage I needed to make. At the time, I had very little interest in religion. However, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the saints and angels painted onto fresco or sculpted from marble. Of particular interest to me was the depiction of halos, as if the artists were somehow gifted with the ability to see auras or electrical coronal discharge like Kirlian photographers before there were cameras.
The shrines and temples I visited decades later in China and Japan reminded me of the saints and angels of my youth. The religious iconography was quite similar even to the extent of the revered and holy being honored with halos. Perhaps there is something poignant about humans portraying other humans as special or somehow enlightened with higher consciousness, namely one person’s recognition of another person’s wonder and magnificence.
Kwan Yin (or Guanyin) is an East Asian goddess of compassion and mercy. The name literally means ‘the one who perceives the sound of the world.’ As a Christian mystic, I’ve long been fascinated by Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta and eastern thought, especially seeing and perceiving beyond labels and surface appearances. To me, Kwan Yin ultimately represents non-judgment and the ability to see another’s divinity and not their current psychological state or mental activity. Perhaps she serves as a reminder, to be kind to others, for despite our hard outer shells (arising from fear and suffering), within, the breath of God still lingers from our birth. If you can see such a halo in another person—the radiant light overflowing from within—you have gone beyond the noise and heard the faint sounds and murmurings of the world—the hidden world of people and their loves, passions, wounds, dreams, heartbreaks, joys and delights.