The diptych was but one object of many that made us stop and just look. But it's only one of literally dozens of ivory carvings and miniatures, each sharing many of the same attributes. It was the same with the Gothic sculptures adorning the walls of a crypt from which they looked down on a variety of gorgeously rendered sarcophagi. And it was the same with the paintings. Shit. The paintings!
The Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin may be the greatest painting I've ever seen. Humbly displayed in a quiet room the color of limestone, it sits on a perch and whispers, "Come closer." I obeyed, and I found a picture I'd seen a thousand times before in reproduction, but as is so often the case, I had yet to really see it. Three panels: the Annunciation of the Holy Motherhood by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin in the center, flanked on either side by devout onlookers to the left and Joseph the Carpenter in his workshop to the right. A technical marvel, it's masterfully rendered in oil from a time when the medium was still in its infancy. I have yet to find a reproduction that will do it justice, but the picture is revelation, both literally and figuratively.
I've heard stories of people breaking down before a Mark Rothko. Now, I like Rothko as much the next guy, but give me a break! You want a reason to weep, go stand in front of the Campin Annunciation for twenty minutes and really look. Afterwards, try to remember why you ever thought Mark Rothko was a painter of note. Maybe you can do it. Maybe a lot of people can. I sure as hell can't. I couldn't that day, and I can't now.
I don't mean to say that the Campin has no equal, or that the Rothko lacks the power to move. I've stood in the middle of a room full of Rothko pictures and bathed in the depths of his blues and oranges; I have stood there, closed my eyes, filled my lungs with air, and felt myself falling into those fields of color, and I have been moved. But on this day, as I stood before that gloriously crafted and unassuming triptych, I stared into its turbulent world of spatial anomaly, of allegory and riddle, of symbolism and iconography, and of blind humility in the presence of the extraordinary, and I was pulled in, and my eyes were opened. I've since found that I do some of my best looking when my eyes are open.
There's a terrace with a well-manicured garden upon which museum visitors can walk out and sit while enjoying panoramic views across the Hudson and into New Jersey. It was on the terrace, while looking at a peculiar shrub whose branches had been manipulated over the years to grow like the arms of a candelabrum, that my friend and I began to piece together what we'd been seeing. And why it was all so profoundly different from what we'd become accustomed to seeing.
Had either of us been religious, then we might have been tempted to look at all of these distinctly Christian masterpieces and attribute their power or pathos to some form of divine inspiration. We are not so disposed. Nor are we of the type to be persuaded that the Old Masters were endowed with mystical secrets or otherworldly abilities. They could not, as an eloquent professor of mine once put it, shit marble. They were not, in any objective sense, special. They were just people; people with an admirable level of skill, which was innate, and a brilliant technique, which had to be learned. But they had something more.