My recent domestic travels over winter break brought me to San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, Seattle’s Museum of Art, and the illustrious museum row pair of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Frick Collection in New York. These visits, coupled with my weekly docent training at the Getty Museum, where the second half of our days transpire in shared contemplation of art, fully immerse me in a fantastical and sometimes deeply spiritual world. I amble in many hallowed halls of museums, sometimes alone, but often with colleagues or willing loved ones, and now, finally, after many days of exposure, art created long before I walked this earth, uncovered a revelation that I did not think would apply to me: religious paintings are profoundly transformative.

I grew up in a Vietnamese Buddhist household, but I was educated in a Catholic all-girls school in Aachen, Germany, where my elective theology classes unfolded under the watchful eyes of a Protestant teacher. Back then, the biblical narratives woven into the fabric of my upbringing were only “stories.” This is how they made sense to me. Makebelieve, like the one of Santa Claus. And that part hasn’t actually changed. Today, as an adult, I continue to uphold facts over faith, and that the God of that Christian Bible and the supposed divine words enshrined in (man-written) scripture are actually the reason for so many, often lethal, earthly transgressions. I am thus, confidently, not a religious person, least of all Christian.

Yet, through my interest in visual arts, a rekindling has begun to transpire. An avenue back into these biblical narratives of my childhood unveils an understanding for those who believe in these – for them – sacred figures. Painters of the past, it seems, are managing to educate me as they once did their intended audience. What captivates me is the burgeoning relationship I’ve forged with the various portrayals of Mary and Baby Jesus.

Time nurtured a familiarity with these biblical tales through oral transmission, so the people of Renaissance and Baroque Italy were able to recognize these characters in their narratives at a glance. And as a consequence, renditions of Mary and Jesus are aplenty. Up until recently, I found the sheer vastness of Marys and Jesuses overwhelming when going to museums or places of worship. They all looked the same, but also different. It took slowing down and spending real time with the paintings to finally feel the essence of what makes the holy family so moving.

Some of my favorite painters managed to capture this very divine essence through careful choreography of scenes and iconography. My training in film directing serves me well as I dissect the particulars of mis-en-Scène on a canvas. Contemplating two particular paintings – “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne” by Leonardo da Vinci and another titled “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” by Caravaggio – for their composition is a real odyssey and has stirred new sentiments I hadn’t anticipated.

Now, I probably have seen Da Vinci’s painting in person years ago during one of my visits to the Louvre Museum, but like any gawky tourist, I headed straight to the crowd where the Mona Lisa smiled upon visitors behind her bullet-proof glass. I paid Madonna, Child, Saint Anne, and the little lamb barely any attention, and the painting vanished into the recesses of my mind, relegated to the arsenal of short-term memory images that became quickly forgotten.

But I am lucky. Here at the Getty hangs a similarly-sized copy made by a pupil in da Vinci’s workshop, possibly Gian Giacomo Caprotti/Andrea Salai.

“Virgin and Child with Saint Anne in a Landscape” (1508-13) Workshop of Leonardo da Vinci (Possibly Gian Giacomo Caprotti, called Salai), oil on panel, Getty Museum, Los Angeles

During my last training day just four days ago, I noticed an intriguing detail about the painting – the upper left corner appeared to be slightly detached from the frame. The security guard told me that it had been like this for a while, so he didn’t seem concerned. Strangely though, as I am writing this post, the painting seems to be missing from the Getty website, leading me to suspect that it might be undergoing restoration by conservators. I’m unable to provide its current dimensions. Nevertheless, the original version at the Louvre by Da Vinci measures 44.49 inches x 66.14 inches, offering a reliable point of reference. Supposedly, the Getty version is about four inches taller. It’s pretty big.

In the fleeting moments I’ve shared with this painting, an absolute fondness has blossomed within me for the portrayal of Mary, seated on her mother Anne’s lap, as she tries to prevent her mischievous son from climbing upon the lamb. There is something timeless and universal about these three generations interacting with one another, something so incredibly relatable. Mary assumes both the roles of mother and daughter. Her expression carries both the weight of anguish and an acceptance of her child’s inevitable destiny, embodied in the sacrificial lamb.

“Rest on the Flight into Egypt” (c.1597) by Caravaggio, 135.5 x 166.5 cm; oil on canvas, Doria Pamphilij Gallery, Rome

Another favorite rendition of Mary and Jesus encountered in my studies (but not yet in person), comes from the hand of Caravaggio in “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” Here, the holy family rests beneath a tree after a harrowing escape from Herod’s wrath, who wants to kill the Christ Child. Joseph holds up musical hymn notes for an angel to play, while mother and infant snuggle together, sleeping peacefully. Mary cradles her son like a blanket, protecting him as best as she can during his vulnerable years. This is such a tender moment, and it automatically makes me project all the beautiful sleepy embraces I have gotten to experience with my own two children.


Genuine human beings sat for Caravaggio’s paintings. You can discern familiar faces, like a cast in a movie or play, across various works. This, to me, enhances the authenticity of the image because these figures are not idealized and imagined but are grounded in real humanity.

Both Da Vinci and Caravaggio managed to do this to me, encouraging me to appreciate the biblical narratives more. After repeated viewings, an inexplicable resonance echoes within my heart, and a poignant awareness has taken hold of me. I have no choice but to acknowledge that the tender infant I see in these portrayals, Baby Jesus, has a harrowing fate awaiting him: a painful death on the crucifix. It makes me so sad to think of this. Luckily, I am able to maintain an emotional equilibrium. Compelling films and good novels have the power to ignite similar empathetic currents in me. But if religious piety was a steadfast companion of mine, staring at these artworks would most definitely fortify my devotion the same way it did for the Italians of the Renaissance and Baroque. I get it now. These religious paintings are incredibly effective. I cannot imagine what they might have meant for the people back then, but I have an idea now. And I find it magical that these paintings found a way to speak to me.

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