An extraordinary and magical moment when meandering through any Art Museum in the world happens when suddenly you realize that someone in a painting is  making direct eye contact with you, even follows your gaze as you walk away from it, as if wanting to tell you something important about his or her life.

This fascinating eye contact with someone in a painting goes beyond the technical ability to capture the gaze of the sitter. What artists achieve when having their figures look directly at the viewer is immortalize their souls. These figures transcend time and talk to us from the past as if they were still alive and being caught in an eternal present.

Many artists have captured  masterfully the steady gazes of men, women and children  looking at the viewer straight in the eyes. It´s difficult not to think about the suggestive gaze of Lisa Gherardini, spouse of Francesco del Giocondo, known as La Gioconda,  painted by Leonardo Da Vinci, and whose smile and look has mesmerized artists and art-lovers throughout the centuries.

At the Prado Museum, in Madrid,  there are many paintings whose figures look at you directly in the eyes. Some seem to do nothing but stare at you, as if they only existed, or were brought to life, only when you look back at them. Others stare at you in the middle of an action, making you part of a broader context.

After having looked for years at  some of these works at the Prado, staring in the eyes countless times  at their protagonists, the experience of looking at them has become for me like an enriching conversation with friends I always look forward to meet.

Portrait of a Cardinal (1510).Rafael Sanzio.

We are going to focus our attention on three extraordinary paintings, relatively small in scale,  painted by three of the most important artists of the Rennaissance, Raphel, Durer and Titian. Each artist has painted the figure´s gaze with a very different objective, however, all three figures are imbedded with a profound knowledge of human nature.

These three paintings are the stunning Portrait of a Cardinal, by Rafael, (1510), Durer´s  famous Self Portrait (1498), and an intimate Christ Carrying the Cross (1565) by Titian.

Rafael´s Cardinal, painted in 1510, suprises me every time I walk into room 049. This elegant, calm and  mature man, dressed in a glowing red Cardinal robe seems to be waiting for me to look at him, as if I was the only person in the room, which is seldom the case because there´s always a crowd looking at this amazing portrait.

His direct and robust look, reassuring at first, tells me that despite his prudent body language, he is very self conscious of the power he exerts over people as the highest ranking officer of the Church, besides the Pope. Should I be afraid?

He looks at me seeming to understand my  mortal and mundane worries and wrongdoings, which is a good thing, because it feels good to have someone who actually knows your secrets. However, I have a growing sense  that if in trouble, he probably will not move a finger to help me. He could even use what he knows about me to compromise me…

The more I stare at him, the more he looks distantly compassionate. Although he probably and in good faith prays for my soul, it´s difficult for me to decipher his true intentions. I have the growing  certainty that whichever way the wind blows, God will always be on his side.

A bit numbed but proud of  having held once again the Cardinal´s gaze, I go to nearby room 055 where the German artist Albrecht Durer, (who actually must have coincided in Italy with Rafael´s Cardinal, whoever he was…), has been waiting for me since the last time I went to the Prado. I remember that the last time I stood in front of Durer´s self portrait, I was swept away by his self confidence.

If the Cardinal is powerful because of who he is in the Church hierarchy, Durer is even more powerful because he doesn´t need the Church or anyone to accredit his importance.  He just needs a mirror to look at himself and tell posterity that he is happy with what he sees. I wish I could feel as proud when I look at myself in a mirror…

He feels  important and proud because he is Albrecht Durer, age 26, painted after his own image, which is what he has written on the actual work when signing the picture.   

Self Portrait (1498). Albrecht Durer.

Durer depicts himself handsomely Christ-looking and elegantly dressed as an Italian gentleman. He appears as a relentless observer of human nature and the most extraordinary draughtsman who firmly believes in the power of his intellect and his Art to investigate and decipher the world around him.

He looks  a bit defiant, may be with certain arrogance, (was he shy?), nevertheless  his crystal clear piercing blue eyes speak to me about freedom of thought and the optimism of Humanist ideals. Later in his life, Durer would have the opportunity to do a magnificent portrait of his admired Erasmus of Rotterdam, whose ideas drew upon him the fury of all dogmatic clergy, including, why not, may be Rafael´s Cardinal as well.

It´d be interesting to see what happens hanging both paintings, Rafael´s Cardinal and Durer´s self portrait facing each other!

Inspired by Durer´s personality, I head towards room 043  looking for Titian´s “Christ Carrying the Cross”, where you can find what I think is one of the most intense and engaging  gazes at the Prado Museum. This time you look at the eyes of Christ, the Son of God, who when going to his Calvary, suddenly has turned his head to look at you while Simon of Cyrene helps  him carry the Cross.

There is no landscape, just a dark background, no distractions. It´s a close up of a tortured and condemned to death prisoner, who in the last moments before his final agony, raises his head and decides to look at us.

This painting doesn´t really take me back in time to witness one of the most dramatic and enigmatic moments in human history, which is Jesus Christ Crucifixion. Because of     Christ´s glance at the viewer, the painting works for me on a more personal level than just a depiction of a popular religious scene for Rennaissance Artists.

A suffering Christ, about to be tortured to death through crucifixion,  seems to be asking me about my own cross. Despite his red eyes, injected with blood, and suffering, Christ invites me  through his gaze to acccept my own cross with courage and pride. He is not asking me for help here, Christ is simply telling me  to be coherent, responsible for my actions and grateful, just like himself, carrying the cross and accepting his death.

Those thoughts are a bit overwhelming. One does not need to be Catholic or even religious to feel moved by the humanity of Christ´s gaze in this painting.

Rafael, Durer and Titian, have used the gaze in these works to communicate effectively different feelings and states of mind: Power and success in Rafael´s Portrait of a Cardinal.   Humanism and self confidence in Durer´s self portrait. Compassion and Commitment in Titian´s Christ carrying the Cross.

Three extraordinary gazes at the Prado Museum.