I have committed one of the most disrespectful acts imaginable: I rushed through an art museum.
I can offer feeble excuses: my group kept pulling me forward, the museum was closing, the long-haired attendant in the cheap suit kept propelling me to the exit, there was too much to see in such short time.
But the fact remains, and I hold myself fully responsible: Sunday at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts saw me almost running past various displays, silently offering what penance I could—apologizing to statues, begging forgiveness of Egyptian jewelry, and mentally flagellating myself before fresco paintings of the crucifixion. I felt the disapproving stares of more leisurely tourists follow me out of each room, and knew I deserved them.
In fact, there was only one exhibit that I spent anywhere near enough time at: the French Impressionist room. As soon as I came into the room and saw the six-foot Renoir painting “Dancing at Bougival,” I put my foot down and would not budge.
The painting filled my vision, and I was lost in it.
I saw it first up close. I followed the textures of the tans and reds of the ground, wondering at the three-dimensional quality of the discarded cigarettes. I followed the sweeping grace of the lady’s gown, watching the ruffles and the subtle differences in color throughout. I stared at the heads of the crowd chatting in the background, guessing what they would be like to talk to, guessing what was being said, wishing I could speak French so I could hear their voices better.
I followed the edge of the painting up and around; skipping, for now, the faces—the focal point. I shivered inside as I felt the wind that moved the forest trees, watching the leaves it blew and the sunlight and shadows it caused to ripple in ancient dances.
I stepped back, and watched as the pieces moved in the whole of the painting, and it took my breath away.
For an instant, I was there, and it was moving. I heard the sweet nothings the man whispered into the lady’s ear. I saw her glance away from him. For an instant, I knew their story. I was the man, intense in his pursuit and passion, knowing that this was the only girl for him, the one he wanted to spend eternity with. I understood the girl and her blushes at the words of her betrothed, yet the undeniable force that kept her dancing with him.
Then they were gone, swept away in the country dance as I stood still. They grew farther away, and merged into their painted form once more. Wonder filled me, and I knew that the great painter had brought another onlooker into his mind, as he has done for over a hundred years.
Surely this is the glory of God reflected in art.
I shivered and turned to look around the room at the beauty surrounding me. I saw Cézanne and Pissaro and Manet. I saw the whimsical curves of Van Gogh and the lush pastels of the Monet landscapes that have always captivated my mind.
How, I thought, can there be so much excellence here? How can these artists, who defied their Master in their work, move me to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation?
I could envision Van Gogh in his “new religion” defying God and being reduced to self-mutilation and suicide. I could envision Picasso trying to express love outside of God’s world and being unable to. I could see Gauguin and his ‘noble savage’ being reduced to the horror of his painting “What? Whence? Whither?”
And then, like a shaft of light shining through Monet’s trees, I saw God working behind the despairing, rebellious men. I could see Him take their work, intended for evil, and use it for His purposes—to inspire future generations and make them glorify their Creator.
I saw God catching the rocks feebly thrown at Him, and turning them around. I saw the rocks come back to earth, singing their praise to God, working against the God-hating artist that created them.
I praised God, then, as I turned back to the Renoir I saw first. I praised Him for His colorful world, for the beauty of humanity and love, for his flowers and lakes. I praised Him for His power to take evil and turn it into good.
And with a heartfelt apology to the sculptures I missed in the middle of the room, I rushed on to catch up with my group.
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