Meeting not Really by Chance
I ended the last entry with a forecast of what I’d be writing next, that is, more about Canaletto, but I’ve decided, as I did when writing blog entry 27 (“The Apple in the Baby’s Hand”), to let Canaletto wait a little longer. Like other blog entries, my last got in the way of looking at new paintings from The Louvre: All the Paintings. But looking at new paintings is important to me. It was how I started two years ago: with the Louvre book and its 3,022 reproductions of all the paintings hanging in the museum at the time of the book’s publication, which I received as a birthday gift after a visit to Paris in August 2012. I had decided back then that looking at the book every day, even for only a few minutes, would keep me in touch with one of the visit’s special events, a day at the Louvre.
So I decided that, while I continued gathering material about Canaletto, I would also look at some more paintings from the Northern Schools section of the book. But I quickly put Canaletto aside because I kept noticing links between my life and the paintings that I happened to be looking at: I reached a portrait of a friend’s patron saint the day before the friend’s birthday; there were two works by Bernaert van Orley (1488-1541), whose painting, Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Art Gallery of Ontario), was chosen by my husband for the cover of one of his books of poetry; I examined a painting of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) by Joos van Cleve (1485-1540) called St. Bernard of Clairvaux in Prayer in Front of the Virgin and Child or The Vision of St. Bernard (ca. 1505), which was of particular interest to me because Bernard’s sermons on the Song of Songs figured prominently in my doctoral thesis on medieval love poetry; there were other examples as well.
It seems my relationship with the Louvre is changing. When I started, I felt I was learning something altogether new, different from anything I had studied before. But now it seems I’m often recognizing things in the paintings that I already know something about.
I didn’t start the Louvre project because I wished to go deeply into something I knew well already; on the contrary, my purpose was to explore something that was largely unknown to me. True, the chronological arrangement of the paintings in the book’s sections means that the first paintings in the Italian section I looked at were not wholly unfamiliar to me in technique or subject due to my medieval training and my religious upbringing. Still, I hadn’t designed my project with this convergence in mind; moreover, my early impressions always registered how little I knew about the paintings and how much I wanted to learn more. When I got the idea for a blog based on the daily paintings, I hesitated precisely because I wondered whether I had anything worth saying.
I was encouraged to try by something that I remembered from a book by C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (1958): “I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself…in this book, then, I write as one amateur to another, talking about difficulties I have met, or lights I have gained, when reading the Psalms, with the hope that this might at any rate interest, and sometimes even help, other inexpert readers.”
I decided I would try writing as an amateur, not an expert, and I’ve kept this principle in mind throughout the blog. I’ve written about questions and my efforts to answer them. I’ve often written about the relative merits of the sources, e.g., Wikipedia, I’ve consulted and admitted how much more might be done to develop an idea thoroughly. Is there a risk that I might be losing my amateur status?
Perhaps there isn’t really much to worry about; the risk, if it can be called by such a dire name, has always been there. Lewis, for example, emphasizes what he doesn’t know about the Psalms, but he doesn’t acknowledge, as I think he might have, the learning in related subjects that drew him to the exercise, the many personal impressions of and responses to the Psalms that he had gathered from years of prayer, and, perhaps most of all, the scholar’s gift of connecting a new subject to the context that the scholar brings to its examination.
I took the title for this entry from “The Street Where You Live,” a song that comes near the end of My Fair Lady, where hapless Reggie sings, “I walk down the street on the chance that we’ll meet, and we meet not really by chance.” There’s something in what he says that suits my situation. When I meet something familiar in the Louvre book, it isn’t really by chance.
Consider the painting today of St. Bernard and the Virgin Mary. I didn’t go expecting to see it, the way I hoped to see the Mona Lisa (see blog entry 12), and I didn’t go even expecting to see a portrait of Bernard; I am much more familiar with his wrtings than I am with his representations in art or with stories of his life. But when I see a painting of him, I’m apt to be drawn to the figures and the story they tell; aware of Bernard’s devotional writings on the Virgin Mary, I was not surprised that he would be shown kneeling before her, but I was not familiar with the particular scene presented, in which Mary is pictured with her right breast uncovered. The Louvre website’s commentary on the painting, included in the “Artwork of the Day” series (see blog entry 18 for more on this series), refers to “the miracle of lactation” and states, “During the Virgin’s appearance to the saint, the latter’s lips were wetted with a few drops of the milk that nourished Jesus.” Other Louvre paintings I’ve looked at contain images of Mary breastfeeding Jesus, but there are variations on this basic image as well: the Child Jesus presenting a lactating breast, the virtue of Charity breastfeeding a child.
So much to see, so much to learn!