The Numinous Quality of Portraiture

The Numinous Quality of Portraiture

January 25, 2018

By Katherine Relf-Canas

In portraits, many different qualities are at play all at once. Portraits seem to be a sign of love: of a person, of artistic ideas and family history. Sometimes one of these predominates, sometimes all three. For portrait artists, I suppose they are an assignment, a challenge, and a means of making a living doing something that they love. So, we are back to love.

There is also something numinous about portraits, something sacred. I realized this when my mother died, and I began to wonder whether the impulse to capture her in a traditional portrait—or one not so traditional—to monumentalize her was similarly experienced by others. Was there a strong tendency among artists, or those “of the trade,” particularly those who have recently experienced loss, to seek to capture the likeness of their parents, spouses, loved ones, or friends when these loved ones reached an advanced age or got ill? Did the activity soothe or help them with their grief? Did the finished artwork help others who were bereaved? What was this impulse? What in this was universal? How might this kind of art serve the bereaved? How might it illuminate end of life issues?

Putting people in the past, letting go, is sometimes so painful that we just can’t do it. We find out how to live through that pain by creating monuments to the people we love. Some of these monuments are intangible: our thoughts, memories, or our pursuit of difficult private or collective goals. Other monuments are tangible: every form of human creation from music to memoirs to money. In grief, some of us work towards achievements we may have vowed we would do for ourselves. Perhaps we even pledge to take something on to fulfill a wish for someone we have lost. This can be of comfort, connect us to a loved one, and add to their legacy.

My niece, who will attend Tulane in the fall, visited the university in New Orleans. While there, the family went on a kind of personal pilgrimage to Hope Cemetery. This is where a prominent New Orleans citizen of his day, Richard Relf, was buried, an ancestor of ours on my father’s side. I was intrigued by his epitaph from the cemetery photographs my sister sent me.

The epitaph read:

“Aye, ‘tis a holy rite remembrance of the dead that will not let oblivion’s blight around the grave be shed.”

Richard Relf 1776 – 1857

One can reason that behind certain works of art is a desire not to let those we love fall into oblivion. (Of course, this might also include the art makers themselves.) Creating something lasting, durable, solid somehow helps soothe us, calms our grief. It perhaps gives it someplace to go, a locus. And writ larger, in the sedimentary layer of the historical past, are many works of art that at one point had personal significance to individuals or a community. As time has passed, some private sentiment has been covered over. Though some stories have been lost, others get carried on through time certainly.

For a brief time, I was once thoroughly fascinated by Antinous, a young hunk who lived in antiquity. Hundreds of statues of the young fellow were commissioned by the Roman Emperor, Hadrian. I’d come face to face with Antinous in one of his iterations while on a trip with my mother once as a teenager. I nearly fell in love with him myself. The Emperor’s lover or friend had drowned in the Tiber, and out of grief, he commissioned tribute after tribute until he’d brought forth some 500 statues of the handsome lad. He created medals with his likeness and even went so far as to have him proclaimed a god, constructing temples for his worship, some of which housed the statuary. Cities were named after him.

Monuments are generally large, built for those who have contributed something to society or distinguished themselves in some other way. Statuary and massive constructions—memorials—dot the surface of our globe. They take up residence in the physical and civic realm after those in whose memory they were created have gone. Traversing any square mile of populated terrain, one comes into contact with such physical manifestations of grief. They communicate the honors bestowed on the famous.

Though, not everyone has a place in history. Those who have come to be known for smaller scale feats or are simply ordinary folk are honored in proportion. They are loved no less, indeed no doubt just as massively, but their monuments might take the form of nameplates on benches, art to beautify hospitals, buildings, and schools. Professorships at an alma mater are funded, or causes of the deceased are found to be good homes for their inheritance. Worthy good works are funded through their gifts and associated with their legacy donations. Simpler memorials on a smaller scale fill cemeteries and private gardens or are simply carried silently in our memories, untold. And some people are never honored nor mourned.

There is something at the core of our shared human condition that infuses art. Art outlives people. And that is why it is particularly numinous when an artwork is created in the context of the end of life. It is the human attempt to throw off “oblivion’s blight.” It makes the artwork and the gesture of the one who commissioned or created it all the more poignant. In doing duty as the preserver of that person’s life record, art transcends the everyday experience of living as it transcends time. This kind of art is not merely decorative. It is a mix of ritual and craft, a gesture that means more than an artwork to adorn a pleasant room. It might even be seen as a kind of “holy rite.”


Katherine Relf-Canas studied energy work at the The Academy of Intuition Medicine (R). Throughout her life, she has maintained a meditation practice and, growing up with artist parents, she has felt a deep connection to art and spirituality. She has written about the healing power of art for Open to Hope, a bereavement website. Her writing has appeared in Mothering magazine and GeoParent as well as the literary blog, Liferaft. She left a career in online web publishing to dedicate herself to parenting. She currently works as a grant writer in the San Francisco Bay Area while working on a memoir about being a personal witness to American history.

This piece first appeared in Open to Hope.

You Must Change Your Life

Photo by Eunice Lituañas on Unsplash

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