Good Friday

A story about Resurrection:

A few months ago I found myself vising the Getty Museum. This trip to Los Angeles was the first time I ever spent more than 6 hours away from my child, and I reveled in the luxury of feeling absolutely alone as I wandered through the museum, listening only to the audio-guide.

I've always maintained a special relationship with art museums. Even in the days of  full religious belief, I found myself turning to art, and the museums that held them, as sanctuaries from my every day world. In my early twenties, seeking therapy for general anxiety and depression, a therapist asked me to imagined my "safe place." It should surprise no one who knows me that I immediately imagined myself in London's National Gallery, surrounded by jewel-tone walls and beautiful art.

Two days before my wedding, which were happy, but busy days, I didn't find myself visiting the temple, like so many other Mormon brides. I found myself at the University of Utah's MOMA. There was a Brian Kershisnik show on display, and Dan and I wandered through the rooms, breathing slowly for the first time in weeks. Everything was going to be fine.

I've experienced more spirituality in art museums than I ever knew at church. Especially more spiritual than anything I ever felt in the temple. Not that churches and temples can't be beautiful, or spiritual, but for me, all those feelings I was supposed to feel at church, I felt when I looked at art. I can feel the art in a way I never felt my Mormonism.

I see myself in the images. In London, the National Gallery has a room filled with Annunciation paintings. (Annunciation paintings depict the moment Gabriel tells Mary she will have the Christ child.) In Duccio's painting, Mary looks afraid, stepping back from the angel Gabriel, hand over her heart, almost dropping her book.

I spend a lot of time feeling like Mary. Afraid of a God who I'm not sure knows or understands my heart. As a person who plans, and plans, and plans some more, I never could trust the Annunciation paintings in which Mary accepts the news of an unplanned divine pregnancy with serenity and grace. I've yet to accept nearly any message I hear in church with serenity and grace, after all.

But I didn't learn to relate to Mary in church. I learned empathy and love for my fellow sister and mother in an art Museum.

Likewise, I made pilgrimage to three cities and three countries to see replications of this statue by Rodin:

These are the Burghers, or city-leaders, of Calais. During the Hundred Years' War, Calais was under siege by the English. The Burghers willingly offered themselves for execution if the English would spare their starving city.They came forward, some with the noose already around their neck, in a supreme act of selflessness and devotion.

I love their faces. I travel just too look at their faces. Some show despair, some resignation, some anger, but I always feel both more human and more divine looking at their faces, feeling what humanity can accomplish when we allow ourselves to become just a little more selfless.

If art museums are my temples and churches, these statues and paintings are my saviors, redeeming me and reminding me that even imperfect humans are capable of wonderful things. I can't look at the Burghers without my heart pounding through my chest, every part of my soul telling me that this, whatever this is, this is truth.

There is one similarity to my religious life and my life as an amateur art historian: I sometimes grow lazy in my devotion. So as I walked through the Getty, seeing my old friends again (El Greco, Giacometti,) I took time to feel the sense of peace settle into my soul. Did you know that all art museums somehow smell the same? They smell like nothingness. Not food, or car exhaust, or even people. Just air. Art museums always smell pure, like breathing inside one will automatically make you smarter and kinder.

At one point in the audio tour, the speaker described his favorite Cezanne painting. Unlike the other art historians and experts discussing the pieces, this man was an artist, and I could hear the emotion in his voice when he described Cezanne's work, his voice breaking as he declared, "I need Cezanne like some folks need God."

I need art like some folks need God.

I need to stand in a space dedicated to human achievement, for all the good humanity can do in spite of all the awful pain and destruction. Because every time I visit an art museum, I'm ressurected. While most days I wear the robes of pain and cynicism, after a day in the Getty, I leave those feelings neatly folded in a marble tomb. I leave, choking down the heart that threatens to pound through my chest, because for one moment, I believe again that people are mostly good. We are flawed, and we get scared, and we bury our head in our hands, but we are good.

It is no surprise that in the same year I moved away from the orthodoxy of my religion, I taught my first humanities class. That class saved my life, as every morning I followed the advice of Ralph Waldo Emerson and made "my own bible." But instead of collecting "all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet," I collected art. I found peace with my prophets and prophetesses, my Van Goghs and Kahlos, and brought myself slowly back to life in the temple of my classroom.

Photo credits:

National Gallery: mine (hence the lack of professional quality.)

Brian Kershisnik: Meyer Gallery

Annunciation: Here

Burghers: mine

Burgher: Jeff Kubina


Lauren Donna said...

I love Brian Kershisnik's work! "She Will Find What Is Lost" is a particular favorite... Museums do make wonderful "churches" - they almost demand reverence and personal reflection. For me, art often brings me closer to God, whether it's a painting, a poem, or a song. I don't know if I respond more to its beauty or subject matter, but I have had what you could call "religious" experiences with certain pieces. Even if I was just looking at slides in an art history class.

I remember walking through the Tate National Gallery in London when I came across George Frederic Watts' "Hope." This painting communicated something VERY spiritual and brought me to tears right there in the middle of the gallery. You could say I developed a very strong testimony of that painting... I thought there couldn't be a more perfect representation of hope.


I love having these experiences outside the context of church because I find comfort in knowing there are struggles, sorrows, and even joys that are universal. Art helps me find that truth.

Stephanie said...

@ Lauren Donna

Thank you for sharing that painting, it is very beautiful. I loved your comment.

Abby (Diligent Joy) said...

I just love this. And I feel the same about most of the humanities. I love them and I need them. Art, music, and literature have inspired me more than Mormonism ever did or ever will. It's always been easier for me to find truth in these things than in organized religion.

Colt said...

Are we best friends yet?

Lia said...

i love your words, so much. in the last few months i struggled with religious belief (before, well, the end), i found myself replacing scripture with art theory, church with paintings, and realizing that i had in fact always turned toward these things when in search of divinity. your relationship to art is maybe different from mine, but i always admired your love for el greco, brancusi, how sacred they are to you.

it is still to the museum i go on days when i feel the need to access more spirituality, and so sometimes embarrassingly find myself wiping a snotty nose on my coat next to tourists at the moma, or gazing at the paul klees you showed me for the first time at the met. maybe someday we'll get to sit down together in front of these respective gods of ours and wipe a tear at what humanity can indeed create.

The Margin Wight said...

I feel these same things. Art, music, literature are holy and necessary. But I feel they must be somehow folded into church worship in order to complete the circuit, so to speak. That's a difficult task given the mindset of our co-religionists who eschew the world, and because of our devotion to correlation. But yes, museums are wonderful. A side note on museums and The Church: I saw an exhibit of Rembrandt's sketches in a museum in Vermont, I believe, and then again in Salt Lake City at the Church Museum. I was amused that the SLC exhibit did not include the sketches that depicted full frontal nudity. So...there are museums and then there are museums.

BethSmash said...

I was at a library and saw this picture book, and thought of this blog. You might enjoy this book.

The Museum by Susan Verde


nevadanista said...

Beautiful. I really wish you could post more often.

Hollywood said...

A friend of mine directed me to this post. And I am in awe at your ability to write what I should have been brave enough to write about in a post I wrote on my blog a few months ago. In the middle of my own Mormon faith crisis, I was completely taken back at the closeness I felt to some sort of god while browsing an art museum. I felt it long ago, also, while staring into the expanses of the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican as a searching 16 year old. I am getting back into touch with a real spirituality Following those yearnings has been key to divorcing myself from the traditional "prescribed" method of HOW TO BE SPIRITUAL found in the LDS faith.
Anyway. Thank you for this. For your courage in saying it like it is. Its nice to know i am not alone in my transition of faith, as well as the fact that there are many, many other notable ways to feel my soul other than sitting in a boring meeting or listening to arbitrary rote scripts laced with metaphor and symbolism with seemingly impossible answers.
Art is simple, yet complex. Art speaks without guile or judgement. It just is.
Kershisnik is amazing. Klee, and Cezenne and the others you spoke about are so touching. You would like Caitlyn Connolly
Thank you for sharing. Thank you thank you thank you!
-Peace to you.
My blog is: www.thesycamore.wordpress.com