The Greatest Works of Art
A few weeks ago on a sunny March Sunday in Rome, my friend Shaun extracted me from my study by inviting me to take advantage of a glorious part of studying in la città eterna: domenica al museo, or free entrance to many museums on the first Sunday of every month. Feeling somewhat inundated with schoolwork, I debated joining him until finally acknowledging myself unable to resist the promise of the aesthetic delights that awaited.
We ambled through the streets of Rome to Palazzo Barberini, which houses part of the National Gallery of Ancient Art and joined the crowds packing into overheated rooms overstuffed with masterpieces. We all jostled and, when necessary, channeled our abilities for deploying elbows usually reserved for the eight a.m. hour on the metro, through the numerous rooms. I craned my neck to catch glimpses of the notables like Raphael’s La Fornarina and Caravaggio’s Saint Francis in Prayer and Judith Beheading Holofernes and paused in the presence of such creations.
After some time, feeling the bizarre sensation of aesthetic exhaustion, we tumbled out of the museum and wandered into the palazzo’s backyard garden. I sat down on a bench while Shaun opted to climb the stairs to glimpse the spiraling maze of hedges from an overlooking terrace.
That particular Sunday was an extravagantly beautiful day, with afternoon light slanting through the just-beginning-to-bud trees. While I was drinking in the scene, an outburst of gleeful shrieking arrested my attention towards two very small children playing in the maze-hedges. One girl was about two, and the other about a year older. The younger girl, brown curls bouncing as she tottered around the garden, chased the other, seemingly her sister by the looks of their resemblance. Their father loped leisurely behind them as the two played their simple game of chase.
I was transfixed by the utter delight of the two girls as they toddled and romped around the garden, and I could not help but smile as I noticed their joy and the simple beauty of the scene.
I then recalled where I was and what I had just experienced: an art museum that houses countless masterpieces. We pour into art galleries in the hopes of gazing directly upon the beautiful images. Yet in this garden were petite yet ever more exquisite masterpieces, individuals created in the image and likeness of the Creator and who radiate forth His splendor.
How often do I pause in appreciation before every person whom I encounter, recognizing them as infinitely more beautiful than the masterpieces of art on which I so quickly seek to affix my gaze?
A few weeks later, as I was preparing to turn the corner to return to my host family’s apartment, a scene of two children again drew my attention. This time, a very young boy around three years old was walking with his family on their evening passeggiata, while a girl around the same age was strapped in a stroller onboard her own family’s walk. The girl had light red hair—itself a remarkable oddity in the Italian gene pool—but what struck me was that both children had abundant messes of curls. As the two parties passed each other, the boy, his smiling mouth ajar in wonder, reached his hand out to the girl as if in a gesture of recognition, as if to touch her hair that was so like his. They looked curiously at each other, their families laughed upon seeing the resemblance, and both went on their merry way in opposite directions. I turned the corner and was struck with gratitude for what I had just witnessed that served as a reminder of the scene in the garden weeks prior.
What would it mean for me to linger upon the beauty of the other as I linger upon the artwork displayed in galleries? Just as I eagerly press into crowded rooms, hoping to gaze upon paintings about which I have heard so much, might I also afford the same enthusiasm to others whom I encounter?
In encountering artwork, we look not as if to raid its depths or solve a mathematical problem but in the presence of beauty to be still, to be quiet, and to contemplate. What would it mean to go out of our way to appreciate other people for the unique creations that they are? To look, not so as to untie or do violence to their mystery, but to look with appreciation, acknowledging, as the French Catholic author Georges Bernanos writes, that the essence of the self is a mystery before which one should have “silent respect.” Perhaps it might bring to us some of the playful joy, the utter delight, and the recognition of ourselves in the other and the resemblances that unite us as children of God.
Hans Urs von Balthasar writes that Christ is “God’s greatest work of art.” Made imago dei, we are graced with the gift of participating in His art, dwelling and playing—in the words of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux—in “our Lord’s living garden of souls.”
Stephanie Reuter is a junior studying PLS and theology and is currently enjoying a Roman holiday from the South Bend permacloud. After conducting informal surveys of faces on the metro, she’s realized that—even before she opens her mouth—she could never pass as an Italian (but that doesn’t keep her from trying). Talk art (broadly understood) with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.