If you would have asked me what my favorite work of art was six months ago I probably wouldn’t have had an answer for you. Sure, I could have impressed Alex Trebek with my knowledge of Jackson Pollack thanks to an Art History class I took in college, but on the whole my appreciation and knowledge of all things art was little to none. And it’s not that I held a negative view of art, it’s simply that I spent so little time actually studying the subject that it ended up being one of those things in life you see off in the periphery and never venture in for a closer look.
That all changed 2 months ago when my wife and I took a trip to Paris and Belgium for our honeymoon. I never said it out loud but prior to arriving in Europe I had my doubts regarding how much I would enjoy touring all of the art museums over there. Afterall, I had been to an art museum or two over here , and while I didn’t hate those experiences I wasn’t exactly taken by them either. I never knew exactly what I should be looking at or even what I was supposed to be thinking while trying to take the art in. Why would it be any different over there?
At first, the difference was hard to distinguish. Like any good tourist, the first art museum we sought out was The Louvre intent on laying our eyes on Mona Lisa. And guess what? It was completely anti-climactic. If one of your goals in life was to really take in and appreciate this world famous painting it’s not going to happen. Because not only is seeing that painting a goal for you, it’s also the goal of every other tourist in the building and they’ll all be pushing and shoving their way up front with their cameras (or worse yet, a giant Ipad) making any attempt to appreciate this piece of art a practice in futility.
The rest of our visit to The Louvre was much more enjoyable, but once again I found myself surrounded by art and no real idea what I was supposed to be getting out of it. For a guy like me, one who tries to steer clear of religion, seeing painting after painting of Jesus suffering (a pretty common subject for the eras the Louvre highlights) becomes a little redundant. In fact, when our tour concluded I think my favorite things to look at while touring the Louvre weren’t art at all. At least not art in the traditional sense. I found the ornate furniture they had on display particularly interesting. That stuff was gorgeous and something I could really appreciate but it didn’t quite provide the experience I was looking for.
But something funny happened in Paris. The longer I dwelled in the city, the more I started getting excited about seeking out new art. That was especially true after we spent a considerable amount of time at l’Orangerie taking in Monet’s Water Lilies. I had seen pictures of the paintings before and liked them, but I had no idea that two substantial sized oval rooms existed solely to display this art work. There, sitting in the middle of these rooms I started to develop a relationship with art beyond reactions like “Oh, look at that. That’s pretty.” The water lilies helped me come to the realization that art is about capturing small details, the beautiful fleeting moments in life we all experience but rarely slow down to appreciate. It was surreal to be there and imagine sitting next to Monet at Giverny, looking across the pond with him as he painted the same landscape over and over, highlighting the differences of the landscape that take place as morning turns to night. Somewhat regrettably, I didn’t make a special trip to Giverny and I never met Claude Monet, but because these paintings exist I feel like we’ve spent time together and that I understand him, even if just a little. What an astonishing realization to come to and something that can only exist through art. Even the best biography can’t get inside the mind of Monet quite like viewing something that came straight from the brain of the artist himself.
I also developed a fondness for the work of Van Gogh after getting the chance to see Starry Night over the Rhone at Musee d’Orsay. His paintings have always captured my attention whenever I’d see them pop up, but I was amazed by just how thick and wavy his paintings were. I learned that not all painting amounted to long beautiful strokes, but that it could also be something entirely different. Coming to that realization was life-affirming. The fact that there is more than one way to create something transcendent and beautiful was too much to overlook and helped me understand that this type of expression can be found by anyone that looks hard enough to get these emotions out of their soul and into the world.
After almost a week in Paris, we packed our bags and boarded a train for Belgium expecting to trade in time spent with art for time spent with beer, waffles, and chocolate. And for the most part we did as e experienced what ended up being an awesome week hopping from Gent to Bruges to Brussels and Antwerp. There was beer, amazing beer, friendly people, beautiful cities, historic sites, red light districts, and frites with mayo that I’ll never forget. I don’t want to understate the time we had in Belgium, because quite frankly it might be the best part of Europe I’ve experienced so far, but that’s not why you’ve read this far. You want to know how I found The Ghent Altarpiece.
We used Ghent as our homebase while in Belgium with our hotel sitting right next to Sint Baafskathedraal. We had all intentions of taking a tour of the church while we were there, but it was closed to the public the day we had scheduled to do our toursity due diligence in Ghent. It was a bummer, but after touring church after church I wasn’t sweating it. If I didn’t have a feel for an old European church at that point seeing one more church surely wasn’t going to make a difference.
On our last night in Ghent my wife and I set out to find mussels. Deana had yet to order a bowl and it was now or never as we walked from restaurant to restaurant looking for a restaurant serving them. Eventually, we settled on a place situated right along the river. The seating was fairly tight as this appeared to be a popular restaurant and I felt obliged to say hello to the couple sitting next to us. We exchanged pleasantries and then went about the business of ordering our massive bowl of mussels.
When our meals arrived I noticed the man I said hello to earlier eyeing up my food. And it wasn’t just one of those “wonder what they’re having” glances, but one in which a long stare was followed by serious discussion with his wife. I assumed I was eating them “wrong” (I almost gave a girl a heart attack in Paris when I ate pizza with my hands) , mentally gave myself an “oh well”, and continued on my gluttonous way. A few bivalves later the man interrupted me and surprised me by asking if he could have one of my mussels. He said that he had never had one before and always one looking to add to my list of life experiences I was all too happy to hand over a mussel and give this stranger a new experience of his own.
The smile on his face affirmed he was quite happy with the mussel and our mollusc exchange led to further conversation. He wanted to know what brought us to Ghent and we explained that we were on our honeymoon. I followed up with the same question and learned that they had traveled from Germany because he was “very art interested” and wanted to see The Ghent Altarpiece at Sint Baafskathedraal. He asked if we had seen it yet and I felt a bit ashamed to say we hadn’t. As we walked home that night, Deana and I decided that we should get up early the next day so that we could see the Altarpiece before we left for the train. If it was good enough for our German friend to travel to Belgium to see, it was good enough for us. And besides, I had developed a bit of an art itch in Paris and felt myself already yearning to scratch it.
The next morning we meandered over to the church,careful not to get smashed by an oncoming tram, and the church greeted us with an entry way decorated with fresh hops on the bine. I’m not sure why they chose that for decoration but this church was already scoring points with me. A couple of left turns and we were in the room with the Altarpiece.
The room was dark with just enough light to highlight the panels, quiet but for the shuffling of fellow travelers, and scented with the soothing smell of incense. The altarpiece itself was quite large measuring 11 x 15 feet spread across 12 panels.
Had I viewed this on any other day, I might have given it a quick look, thought to myself “oh, pretty”, and chalked it up to yet another piece of church related art and promptly moved on to something else. But this wasn’t any other day. Even though we had a train to catch, we had nowhere to rush and I decided to give the Altarpiece a bit more of my attention. I made a donation of 2 euros, grabbed an audioguide, and gave the next 30 minutes to the Van Eyck brothers masterpiece.
The guide went over each panel describing each scene and the distinguishing features. The upper left panel featuring Adam left me in a state of wonder. It’s impossible to tell from the picture above, but in person it looked as if he was walking out of the painting. I’ve never been more interested in toes before, but Adam’s really grabbed my attention that day.
Each panel had something like that going on. There were tiny, microscopic details you might overlook if you didn’t take the time to notice them. And for me, that’s heaven. Life is chaotic, repetitious, difficult, and ugly. But if you stop and look at the finer print you’ll notice beauty you never knew existed before. You will feel connected to things and people like you never thought you could.
And seeing, really seeing, The Ghent Altarpiece was a bit of a religious experience for me. I might have been in a medieval church in the middle of Europe looking at one of the most famous pieces of religious art in the world, but it wasn’t god I felt connected to. I felt a bond with every human that has ever walked the earth. We’re all connected because we’re all looking for that elusive thing that is “bigger” than us. Some of us find it in a book. Some of us find it in a song. And some of us find it when we’re trading shellfish for memories.