In literature, the eyes are often said to be windows to the soul, or its mirror. In Matthew 6:22, we read: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.”
In some curious instances, metaphysical concepts linked to the eyes and vision are conveyed through the representational arts.
A characteristic of the Byzantine style icons is the mysterious large eyes of their subjects. The saints, angels, and gods do not rely on natural eyesight but see through the illusions of the material plane with etherealized eyes. Icons are more than just devotional items, they are instruments of intimate communion between the devotees and the higher beings they worship. Just as the Eucharist allows the participant to literally take into himself the mystical body of Christ, the icon becomes a divine entranceway. The captivating gaze helps the worshipper enter a trance-like state and pulls his soul into the mind of the divinity.
Supernal sight is not an idea unique to Christianity though. The spiritual eye is a traditional religious element found in many contexts and times. One example that fascinates me is the exquisite sculpture of Harpocrates of the Musei Capitolini in Rome.
Harpocrates was the god of silence in ancient Greece. The tip of his index raised to the lips signifies restraint in speech. But if the youthful god shuns words, he must have other ways of communicating with his followers. Again, the original aspect of this marble statue is the way the eyes are wide-cut. Here, the son of Isis and Osiris (Horus—for the Egyptians— whose eye symbol has now become infamous) encourages the mystic’s inward perception to probe the silent depths of his own being where the wordless god made his dwelling.
Centuries later, the notion of inner vision reappears unexpectedly in the cards of the Tarot de Marseille. The Tarot decks originated in Northern Italy and incorporate the hermetic and allegorical imagery of the Renaissance. But the creators of the Marseille Tarot seem to have gone farther in embodying a precise esoteric code in their illustrations.
The peculiar, wide, unrealistic eyes of the archetypal tarot figurants have no precedent in the iconography of the time or in the earlier, more realistically rendered tarot decks. A facial affinity can even be noticed between some of the cards’ young male figures and the 2nd century carved representation of Harpocrates. The Tarot card would soon be used for divinatory purposes, which is yet another form of vision beyond the physical, aimed at uncovering hidden aspects of the querent’s life.
In the 21st century, the widened eye finds its symbolic expression through the popular medium of Japanese manga and anime. The typical manga cartoonish eyes are thought to have their origin in American cartoons characters, such as Betty Boop, whose enlarged eyes were imitated by the early manga artists. However, the classic manga character has scarcely anything in common with his farcical counterpart on the other side of the Pacific.
The manga protagonists are often defined by a richness of complex emotions and feeling, afflicted by existential concerns and inner conflicts, and spend considerable time in abstract thinking. In anime, characters with exaggerated juvenile features are juxtaposed with lifelike drawn individuals—generally secondary protagonists and/or villains—whose inner life is given little consideration if any. In my opinion the large eyes of the Japanese manga are not just a stylistic originality but an artistic convention to draw attention toward the inner motives of the characters and indicate the precedence of mind, spirit and soul over the realm of physicality.