Will this be on the test?

Grünewald-Crucifixion

Forty years ago I took a class in art history.

To be honest, it was more a survey of European art than anything else, and only five or six centuries’ worth of that, so in hindsight it was a pretty small slice of art history.

Even so, art history was not required for my degree.

And the class was certainly well outside my area of concentration, which – don’t laugh – was philosophy. And taking the class might have been risky, if I had been concerned about my grade point average or what a graduate school admissions committee might think about my academic record.

What’s next, basket weaving?

At the time, though, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was thinking, believe it or not, about art.

My dad was an artist, so I grew up with art and visited my share of exhibits and museums over the years. I still don’t know how to change the oil on my car, but I can make my way through an art gallery like a pro. (Tell me, who is better prepared for life?)

One of my best memories from childhood, in fact, was going to Europe with my parents and younger sister and visiting the great museums of art there. We dashed from one to another, with a cathedral or two in between, and that was my early impression of Europe – a lot of beautiful things to look at.

Once, in Florence, my dad realized that Michelangelo’s David was not on the tour itinerary, so we hopped in a taxi at lunch hour and flew – or rather crawled through heavy traffic – to the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze to see it, not knowing if our tour group would be waiting for us when we returned. We didn’t care.

This weekend, without a sermon to prepare for Sunday, thanks to the annual children’s pageant, I took a page from the family playbook and dashed over to Colmar, France, to see the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. Yes, there was a famous Christmas market taking place nearby, but it was the painting by Grünewald that interested me.

And it did not disappoint. Forty years later I can still hear Edgar Boevé, the professor, describe the way the eye moves across the canvass. They did, just like he said!

And then, standing to the right of Jesus, I could see John the Baptist – tell me again why is he attending Jesus’ crucifixion? – pointing what may be the most famous forefinger in the whole history of Western art.

I felt a sudden rush of tears as I walked toward the painting. There it was at last. And there was John the Baptist’s finger. There was Mary, mother of Jesus, supported by John, the disciple, with that impossibly long, utterly unrealistic arm. And there was Mary Magdalene, the closest one of all to the cross, distraught.

I am grateful for that class – all these years later – because it cultivated in me a wonder and an awe that, over time, have not diminished.

Will this be on the test? Yes, it will.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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4 Responses to Will this be on the test?

  1. Charles Scouten December 6, 2014 at 10:04 am #

    Didn’t know of your art background. As an art idiot, the chronological order featrured in the Uffizi enable me to follow evolution from early Etruscan through the highlight, Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” Must say there is nothing quite like coming around that corner and feeling your jaw drop ia you are overwhelmed by that great painting. Even if I cannot understand or appreciate the subtleties of great art, I can appreciate good design. Thanks for a nother revealing read!

  2. Jeff Edwards December 6, 2014 at 12:33 pm #

    It’s posts like this, that open us to who and what you really are, Doug. Thanks for the art lesson and a human lesson of what matters.

  3. mike December 6, 2014 at 6:48 pm #

    “Wonder and awe”, after faith, are a couple of the best ingredients in a recipe for life. Thanks for the reminder.

    BTW – One of my art history classes in college was “Film As Art” taught by Rod Serling (producer of the Twilight Zone series of the ’60s for you kids out there) and, looking back, I’m surprised and glad that he (an agnostic if I remember correctly) chose to screen the 1960’s film “Barabas” in class as a religious film worth our time. Today, “Passion of the Christ” would probably be his recco – – lots of wonder and awe there, too. Never fails to deliver goose bumps or dampness at the corner of the eyes for me.

    • Georgia Hamilton December 11, 2014 at 7:50 pm #

      Doug, Thanks for the art lesson! I went back to the picture with each of your revelations. It mkes such a difference when one can get below the surface of a painting—even if only in a suprficial way. Thank you.

      Georgia Hamilton