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.