My Museum Pilgrimages

I knew I was marrying well when my wife encouraged me to make a list of the churches and museums I wanted to visit on our honeymoon. We planned to hit the cities of Vienna and Prague, and it excited me to discover the many stunning baroque churches. Neither of us was prepared for the impact of visiting places like the shrine of the Infant of Prague and Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, along with smaller but ancient churches and shrines. 

It shouldn’t surprise anybody that two newlyweds found spiritual joy in the presence of the Infant of Prague or among the monks of Brno’s Capuchin Crypt. However, I was delighted to find such joy in the galleries and art museums. At the Kunsthistoriches (“art history”) museum, we spent four hours in one great wing with the great medieval and renaissance works. Indeed, the two of us sat and stared at Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary for a solid thirty minutes. We admired Caravaggio’s use of light and his careful depiction of faces, but there was something more sublime going on. 

As with so much of Caravaggio’s work, Madonna of the Rosary feels more like a film still than a painting. Saints Dominic and Peter Martyr are given a blessing from Mary and the Christ Child while pilgrims with dirty feet clamor around the Mother and Child. All eyes are on them, except for a donor portrait, whose eyes are staring directly at you beyond the frame. The eyes of the donor invite us into the scene and remind us that this unknown seventeenth-century man serves the same Lady and the same Lord as us. 

I have had a lot of time to reflect on it and I’m still at a loss for words. In this popular, secular museum, two American newlyweds found spiritual joy in a baroque painting of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. More than that, I could see how the Catholic faith united so many people, even those as different as a seventeenth-century Italian art patron and a twenty-first-century Yankee couple.

Marriage has changed my outlook in many ways, but our unexpected pilgrimage to an art museum continued to inspire many more little pilgrimages to shrines and museums all over the world. 

A Pilgrimage to an Art Museum?

Along with our planned little pilgrimages, I have had a few accidental pilgrimages in museums. I define these accidental pilgrimages as moments when you had not planned on feeling the presence of God or coming to a new understanding of your faith, but you did. You were seeking God, perhaps unconsciously, but you certainly did not think it would happen in an ordinary place like an art museum. 

Stephen F. Auth, a modern missionary who once had a career on Wall Street, found himself on an accidental pilgrimage to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While on a guided tour through the Rembrandt collection, Mr. Auth paused and discovered something so much greater than what the kindly docent shared. Rembrandt was telling the stories of the Old Testament through the eyes of the great Biblical figures.

That first realization led Mr. Auth to seek more information about the art in the Met’s collection and he even curated his own tour through the museum. And now, his little pilgrimage through the Met is written down for us in his new book, Pilgrimage to the Museum: Man’s Search for God Through Art and Time

Pilgrimage to the Museum is a love letter in two ways: First, it is a love letter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from a lifelong New Yorker. At the same time, it is a love letter to the God who inspires artists throughout the ages. Examining art from ancient Egypt to the expressionists of modernity, with plenty to see in the medieval and renaissance period, the reader is given a brief overview of humanity’s longing for God as seen in visual art. With each statue and painting, more is revealed about God’s plan of salvation and the eternal teachings of the Catholic Church.

This is not a scholarly tome. That said, it is still an informative book with a contagious enthusiasm that emanates from the page as Mr. Auth discovers more about the works in a beloved museum. The book is a solid introduction to the finest works of art. By the time readers learn about Duccio’s Madonna and Child, they have learned the crucial history of early Christian art and can then see the spiritual and technical brilliance of Duccio and later Renaissance painters. 

Friends on the Journey

Our journey to God is easier when we walk with our spiritual brothers and sisters. And so, Stephen Auth is joined on his pilgrimage by Evelyn, his witty wife, while Fr. Shawn Aaron, LC provides spiritual insight. 

It was while examining some early Byzantine icons of the angels and saints that Fr. Aaron made a point that gets to the heart of Christian art:

“All the people we see here are not just historical figures. They’re all present-day figures, alive and well, albeit in a spiritual realm, not in a worldly one. Christ’s divinity, His eternal life in Heaven, is shared with all of us who, like the saints before us, take up our crosses and follow Him.” 

Although we may be alone when we start our pilgrimage, the Spirit guides us on the journey while the saints continue to pray for us at every step. Furthermore, Pilgrimage to the Museum serves as a handy guide for any trips you might make to an art museum. 

Even if you don’t make it to the Met, there are many museums with stunning Christian art throughout the world. For example, New England is home to the Museum of Russian Icons and so many other places of sacred art tucked away in small towns. You can also see if another city has been covered by CE authors under the pilgrimage tag. Even in those places, you’ll benefit from reading this book and easily see the patterns throughout the history of Western art. 

Image: Shutterstock/Rostislav Ageev

By

Michael J. Lichens is the former editor of Catholic Exchange, whose writing has appeared in both Catholic and mainstream sources. With an M.A. from the University of Chicago of Divinity School, Michael spends much of his days editing, writing, and researching great works in Catholic literature and also shares a passion for the overlooked moments in faith. You can track his love of ossuaries and saints at mlichens.com or here on CE.

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