A sunny Friday with a high in the 80s: a beautiful June day in the middle of October. I popped into the museum to visit my favorite Jesus: Antonello da Messina‘s Christ Crowned with Thorns, painted in 1470. Depicted at the moment Pontius Pilate presents him to the hostile crowd—behold the man!—he is “a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3). And it’s startling to see Christ looking so human, so plain. Messina has given him the face of a boxer, mashed and pleading, and those eyes are filled with bottomless sorrow—and maybe a sense of shock at what his very human pain will unleash across the centuries, what would be done in his name.

The flesh-and-blood realism of this painting emerged from an ancient belief in visualization as a form of prayer. Maybe it’s limbic and hardwired, this desire to see the divine rather than hear or touch. “And in grieving you should regard yourself as if you had our Lord suffering before your very eyes,” wrote Saint Francis of Assisi in the years before the Renaissance transformed painting into worlds that looked like our own. Inspired by the belief that visualization could lead us to God, these canvases became aids for contemplation. All the better if they left us damp with tears and blood. Seeking to clarify the role of the artist within the church, Cardinal Charles Borromeo’s Instructiones insisted that a painting’s only function was to move viewers towards penance.

I wonder where we find these images today.