Pilgrimage to the Museum: Man’s Search for God through Art and Time
By Stephen F. Auth | Sophia Institute Press | 2022 | 240 pages
In New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met), a “narrative resonated across time, even as the great artists themselves came and went with the centuries,” writes veteran Wall Street investor and Catholic evangelist Stephen F. Auth in a new book. His Pilgrimage to the Museum: Man’s Search for God through Art and Time (Sophia Institute Press) offers fascinating insights into the soul as revealed by the erudite analysis of art across the ages from a seasoned critic.
Auth’s art odyssey begins in ancient Egypt with the Tomb of Pernab, purchased from the Egyptian government in 1913 and reconstructed at the Met. “Egyptian tombs were built partly to honor and memorialize the dead but also to serve as a staging ground to the eternal—at least, that is, for the fortunate,” in “a big eternal party,” Auth writes. Like the pharaohs’ pyramids, such tombs exemplified the ancient Egyptian belief in a “U-Haul following a hearse.”
These ancient beliefs strike many moderns as primitive, but Auth reminds that Pernab and his contemporaries lived “before God revealed Himself even to the Hebrews” in a world of “pre-revelation theology.” Yet the ancient Egyptians “were clearly longing for, seeking, a relationship with their Creator, seeking eternity. That’s a start to the spiritual journey.”
After examining sculpture and images among Greco-Roman classics, Auth arrives “in a world that has been fundamentally changed by the Resurrection” of Jesus Christ and his disciples. Among Christendom’s numerous masters examined by Auth, he takes special delight in Domenikos Theotokopoulos, a Cretan born in 1541 known to history from his painting in Spain as El Greco (the Greek). “His ability to transport me from here to Heaven and back again is quite unique among all the great artists I’ve studied,” the “perfect synthesis of art and spirituality,” writes Auth.
In Christ Carrying the Cross (ca. 1577-1587), El Greco impresses Auth with a uniquely uplifting interpretation of Christ’s journey to brutal execution on a Roman cross, the price of humanity’s salvation:
The Cross itself does not appear to be the ridiculously heavy tool of torture that it most surely was but looks almost like two sticks of balsa wood that our Lord seems to carry effortlessly. And interestingly, the Cross is thrust upward, toward Heaven and victory, not downward, toward Earth and defeat.
El Greco died in 1614, eight years after Protestant Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn’s (1606-1669) birth. With many artists, Auth discerns personal touches in their paintings, and the influence of Rembrandt’s troubled, impoverished life upon his works is no exception. “Rembrandt saw humanity, and himself, as fundamentally flawed and broken. His many portrait paintings were realistic to a fault,” Auth writes.
The familiar Old Testament tale of King David’s adultery with Bathsheba accordingly parallels Rembrandt’s own extramarital affairs in The Toilet of Bathsheba. Rembrandt placed the nude, bathing Bathsheba in the painting’s foreground while David gazes longingly from the distant background. “Was this painting of Bathsheba at her toilet a peek inside Rembrandt’s own head, about the slippery slope of sin he knew he was already on but couldn’t get off,” Auth asks.
As Auth’s journeys through Met galleries reach the 19th century, he notes the declining faith of the culture. “New discoveries in the sciences, political revolutions upending the old order, the Industrial Revolution underway, and the urbanization of society all conspired to leave men wondering if there was a God at all,” he writes. Thus, “artists would no longer feel compelled to use their considerable talents to transport us to a spiritual realm ruled by God, to communicate great virtues, to explore our inner thoughts, to understand our souls.”
Born in 1881, Pablo Picasso exhibited this secularism throughout his 92 years. From Barcelona, “unlike the great painter-mystic El Greco, whose work is said to have influenced Picasso throughout his career, Picasso evidenced no belief, or even interest, in God,” Auth notes. This Spaniard “was entirely rooted in the here and now, and—judging by his long string of romantic dalliances and affairs—satisfying his own appetites and passions seems to have been his primary interest.”
Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon “changed the direction of art forever,” Auth writes while discussing one of the few works referenced in the book outside of the Met, in this case in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In this 1907 painting, “Cubism was born, and we were brought to the threshold of fully abstract art, which would be devoid of any physical representation at all,” he observes. “With the Creator now dead, the artist has declared himself the new creator” and “stitched together his own images of these women of the night, casually hawking their wares as if manning a fruit stand.”
Yet Auth closes the broad sweep of his artistic review with a spiritual comeback in Picasso’s Spanish contemporary, Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). “Dalí, like many of the modern artists we’ve been viewing, started his career as a confirmed atheist, raised by a Catholic mother and a nonbelieving father,” Auth writes. Yet by Dalí’s 1954 Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus), the “great Spanish painter of the modern era—perhaps just behind Picasso in fame—was as Catholic, perhaps, as El Greco.”
This “Christ on the Hypercube,” Auth explains, shows Dalí studying the “intersection of mathematics and religion, which led him to wonder if the God he had been searching for existed in a fourth dimension of reality.” “Rather than display the tortured, defeated, dead body of Christ, Dali has portrayed Him in His already resurrected form: fully sculpted, unharmed, full of life and vibrancy,” and “taking His Cross with Him to Heaven,” Auth marvels. Dali shows “religion and science working together, if you will. The atheist turned devout Catholic.”
The search for the spiritual, Auth’s red thread, thus runs from ancient Egypt to the 21st century. Along the way he engrosses readers with a rich selection of wonderfully perceptive artistic vignettes. For Auth’s audience, a visit to the Met will never be the same again.