Although it was my first time to the Met, being there reminded me of attending “Museum School” as a child. For one full week in Grade 3, my class and I had daylong visits to the Glenbow Museum where we explored art, artifacts, exhibits, historical documents, and international collections. We were given journals and encouraged to be curious and careful observers. The goal was to be still and observe with a sense of wonder, reflectively considering the “5Ws” – who, what, when, where, and why. We were encouraged to not try to observe everything, but rather to observe a few things well. We were educated to not race throughout the museum saying superficially, “That’s nice” and “That’s interesting.” In short, the most memorable lesson of Museum School was: “Don’t be a nodder.”
“Don’t be a nodder” was a formative lesson. I applied it during my visit to the Met. After a couple of hours in the Greek and Roman section, I made my way to the Christian art. The paintings of Christ, the depictions of Gospel stories, and the images of Christian Saints inspired reflection and meditation.
Reading the descriptions next to the paintings, there was something that struck me. Several of the paintings involved the phrase “Saints and Donors” in the titles. Donors? Why donors? What does this mean? I was completely perplexed by this. Curiosity overcame me in particular because just last week I had read a poem titled “The Donor.” I figured there must be some connection, but I hadn’t understood the whole meaning of the poem so there remained a mystery.
I asked one friend if he knew what was meant by donors in religious art. He didn’t. But then, another friend who had overheard me said that her friend who had studied art history had explained donors in religious art. She said, “The donors are the ones who pay for the painting. They pay and then they are discreetly included in the painting with the Saints.
We walked together back to the painting to take another look.
Thanks to there being free wireless internet at the Met, I looked up the poem I had recalled. I found “The Donor” and began reading a wonderful translation of the Rainer Maria Rilke poem, my eyes alternating between the painting and the lines of poetry:
They put you in the picture if you pay.
So even if you didn’t see the Savior,
And even if the holy bishop’s hand
Didn’t guide you in devout behavior
(Kneeling, near the border, looking bland),
In the painting it appeared that way.
That could be the main thing: just to kneel,
So kneeling is the only thing you feel,
So that you keep your self-willed shapes contained
Inside of you, like horses tightly reined,
And find the grace not to expand and steal
The scene. So if enormity takes place,
Something outside the scope of what you learn,
It might just overlook you, cloaked in grace,
And might come near, absorbed with its concerns,
So close you see a thought rise in its face.
Wow! Now, that was cool! This was precisely what bibliophile Anne Fadiman calls a “You-Are-There Reading” experience, “the practice of reading books in the places they describe.” She asks, “What makes You-Are-There Reading so much more thrilling to us buffs than You-Are-Somewhere-Else Reading?” Her answer: “I think it’s because the mind’s eye isn’t literal enough for us.”
And indeed, reading Rilke’s poem while beholding an actual image of what it depicted made both the poetry and the art more real to me. I empathized with the donors and thought about how being painted with the Saints might have changed them. A Florentine patrician was at the height of his political career when he commissioned the painting. He is painted in a lowly pose facing his two sons and kneeling devoutly at the feet of Saints Lawrence, Cosmas and Damian. In being painted “kneeling, near the border, looking bland” the donor is converted to humility. His soul is transformed by the art which is instructive in teaching him to rein in his ambition and not try to steal the glory from God.
The experience of an actual, effective turning around of the soul (as in Plato’s Simile of the Cave and somewhat connected to conversion in the Augustinian sense) is called periagoge. In this short article, Lee Trepanier discusses this as follows:
In his chapter on Eric Voegelin, John von Heyking writes that Voegelin’s understanding of teaching drew directly from Plato’s description of it as the “art of periagoge”: the turning of the person from focusing on transient and temporal goods to eternal and permanent ones. However, periagoge is not a religious or mystical conversion per se but rather a heightened awareness and openness to all reality that emanates from the true, the beautiful, and the good. The teacher’s role is to help turn the student’s soul to the true, the beautiful, and the good, although the teacher ultimately cannot do it for the student: the student must be able see these things for himself.
The purpose of good art and poetry is for our souls to be turned around from opinion to knowledge, from ugliness to beauty, from darkness to light, from values to virtues, and from untruth toward truth. The Greeks understood art to be an imitation of nature. What does modern art imitate? Does the art, poetry, and music that we experience help us to become educated in such a way that our souls become more open to goodness, beauty, and truth?
How wonderful that this sort of learning can begin with something as simple as trying to not be a nodder at the Met.