The Met, the World, and the Mystery of Man

“I saw Eternity the other night,

Like a great ring of pure and endless light,

All calm, as it was bright;

And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,

Driv’n by the spheres

Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world

And all her train were hurl’d.”

Henry Vaughan, “The World”

The subways, streets, and sidewalks of New York are such a colourful education in human nature that I hardly felt the need to visit the city’s great reservoirs of culture to learn about mankind. I avoided galleries and museums because I didn’t know how much more of humanity I could take. But finally, I went to the Met.

It was a sweaty, too-bright summer day with the heat simmering on the concrete when I finally approached the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, dodging the pedestrians who pounded by in all directions. The high, arched foyer of the Met echoed with cool voices murmuring like water, a doorway to a cavern of memory.  Map in hand, I began to wander – through a towering gate and straight into the Middle Ages, replete with tapestries, suits of armour at vacant attention, and saints and kings carved in wood and stone.

That was only the beginning. From there, a glass pedway arched over the hall of sculptures, so that we gazed down from above on the frozen white forms of ancient Greece; we passed through dizzying hallways of portraits, gesturing maidens and firm-jawed men. We stumbled through an absurdist Scandanavian installation piece, which combined haunting acoustic music with videos of obscene acts. An entire Egyptian temple was spread out on the ground floor, stern and brutal in the half-light. Hallways led off to Ancient Briton, Renaissance France, the Asias, Africa, and Pacifics, stocked with all manner of artifacts made by human hands. A violent pink modern art exhibit was splashed across the upper stories. 

And finally, on the rooftop, my favourite of all: an installation called Parapivot, intersecting lines of steel not quite lining up, planetary spheres in fragmented orbits, angles askew, connections broken. It looked like a solar system with no sun, or an atom without a nucleus, something epic and elemental that was missing a centre – some gathering point which could draw it all into order again.

“Parapivot” by Berlin-based artist Alicja Kwade, 2019 rooftop exhibit of the Met. (Photo by Christina Horsten/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The sheer impossibility of processing the assemblage of art from all of history and all the world meant that more than any one piece, I took away an impression from the collection itself. It’s an impressionist portrait of humanity, in which all the world is present through the art and artifacts its people have left behind. My impression of it, of humanity, and of life, is very like Parapivot: it’s made up of weighty spheres of experience, knowledge, and longing, but shattered and fragmented from one another. The Met seemed to echo with the cries of humanity: is history really just “one damn thing after another?” Why does it seem like humanity is a solar system without its sun? In the Met, it seemed like every voice from all of history was shouting out, each in its own language and its own way, “Why all this pain? Why all this beauty? What does it all mean? Is it all for nothing?” The art produced by the longing, aching, and exulting of people from all of history forms an echo chamber of humanity: all our ideas, hopes, failures, successes, fears, lives, deaths, all captured in colour and lines, and convoked in a single building. 

At this point, my feet hurt and the line for the bathroom was long (stretching out into the Egyptian wing, in fact). I was overwhelmed and wishing that I had confined my contemplation of human nature to the humble subways.

Then I looked up. 

Above the main foyer, where I was leaning on a wall to give my feet a break, the walls ascended to graceful white arches. Topping it all, there is a dome with a skylight. It gave the impression of white rings of light spinning in perfect balance around a centre.

Skylight dome in the Met foyer, photo mine. Because what’s more photo-worthy at the Met than the ceiling?

It reminded me immediately of one of my favourite poems:

“I saw Eternity the other night,

Like a great ring of pure and endless light,

All calm, as it was bright;

And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,

Driv’n by the spheres

Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world

And all her train were hurl’d.”

“The World,” Henry Vaughan

The poet describes the chaos of activity within the world, the striving and seeking of all kinds of people: lovers, power-hungry statesmen, sensual epicures, frantic misers, anxious liars. 

Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,

And sing, and weep, soar’d up into the ring;

But most would use no wing.

O fools (said I) thus to prefer dark night

Before true light,

To live in grots and caves, and hate the day

Because it shews the way,

The way, which from this dead and dark abode

Leads up to God,

A way where you might tread the sun, and be

More bright than he.

But as I did their madness so discuss

One whisper’d thus,

“This ring the Bridegroom did for none provide,

But for his bride.”

I look at every piece in the Met, painting or pottery or print or bamboo paddle, and I see the person who brought it into being.  That is why I love all kinds of art. It is what we humans do: unique among creatures, we “weep and sing.” Each one is part of the tumult that Vaughan talks about, the driven melee of time measured out in hours and years – crying, hoping, fearing, loving. An art gallery is a sort of echo chamber of human nature. I hear their weeping and singing. 

Our human self-awareness, manifest in art, is a cry for God. All of the striving and longing captured in the Met’s artworks, the fractured human experience, is a longing for the peace of eternity. Yet, looking up from the floor of the Met at the circle of light above, I felt a moment of despair. How can we ever reach it? We timebound beings, so insatiable for eternity that is out of our grasp? We seem to torture ourselves in reaching for it, or, worse, start worshipping ourselves and our art for having something to do with it. As if art is God just because we use art to tell one another about God. As if human love is God just because it sharpens our longing for Him. 

Entering the Met through the sweeping front stairs, you find yourself in the European Paintings section, of the years 1250-1800. The art of that time has only one topic: Jesus Christ. When you enter that section, right at the heart of the Met, there is nothing but Him. There are cryptic Eastern panels in chipped paint of the mother holding her holy Child; life-size crucifixions gazing down from every angle; dozens of Madonnas, from narrow-eyed Eastern triptychs to ornate portraits in Renaissance garb. There is Christ the child, the teacher, the healer; Christ at the Last Supper and in Gethsemane; Christ on the Cross and in the tomb; Christ risen, glorified, and Christ the Judge of every human soul on the last day. Canvases dark with shadows or bright with sunlight, dominated by fire or ablaze in golden glory – there is only Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. 

Jesus Christ holds the central place of art history  because He is the centre of history itself. If He is who He says He is, then His life isn’t just one point on the timeline of history. He is centre on which it all turns. It’s no exaggeration to say that all of history is about Him. 

“He is the image of the invisible God; in Him all things in heaven and on earth were created … He holds all things together in Himself.” The Letter of Paul to the Colossians, 1:15, 17

The Letter of St. Paul to the Colossians 1:15-17

Parapivot captures in stone and steel our human feeling that things are not lining up, not what they should be. He is the centre. He holds all things together in Himself. He is the beginning, the end, and the whole story in the middle. Looking up from the floor of the Met, feeling the agony of history yet seeing the light of eternity breaking in, I thought of the mystery of Christ. All I know is that He loves every single soul as much as He loves me. I thought of the prehistoric Celtic jewelry I had seen, and all the women who wore it – He knows them all by name. I thought of the shadowed Temple of Dendur, and every person who offered sacrifice there; He endured abuse, humiliation, and torture out of love for them. I thought of the erudite Greeks, sculpting perfection in cold marble; the absurdist Scandinavian postmodernists, flailing to find the boundaries of reality; all of the ways in which we search for the peace of eternity. I can write a little about it, but I can’t bring peace to a single soul. Only Christ can do that.

New York, the city of the Times, is a strange place to find the peace of eternity. The world’s foremost metropolitan art gallery, where you can trip over humanity’s great treasures, is an odd place to catch sight of “a ring of pure and endless light” that eclipses them all. And yet not so strange – all of history points to Him, all of creation cries out for Him; if not in the brokenness of history, where will we find the One who holds all things together in Himself?

One thought on “The Met, the World, and the Mystery of Man

  1. Amen . . . thank you, Kathleen. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” and central to his story is beauty. Love, of course, but also, as you have described so well, beauty.

    Like

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