My heart gave out a quiet cheer for the Benedictine monks of Montmajour last week. They hadn’t caught any breaks in ages, so they were long overdue when a bit of recognition finally came their way.
Founded in the 10th century near the southern French town of Arles, the monks occupied a prominent site, and on it they built an impressive complex that dominated the landscape. The centuries were not kind, however, and in later years a succession of non-residential abbots exploited the monks and their property. But in 1639 the last of the worst of these abbots, Charles Bichi, lost his iron grip on the revenues and the monastery came under the control of a group of reforming Benedictines from Paris.
With a surname like Bichi, and a demeanor that may have matched, you have to wonder why some of the old monks hated to see him go. Maybe they didn’t want to be reformed. Maybe they thought that an abbot a hundred miles away was better than one just down the hall. Anyway, M. Bichi got his walking papers, and the monks got a relatively tranquil life until the place was secularized in 1786. Then the place went to rack and ruin, literally. And that’s when Vincent Van Gogh enters the story.
Van Gogh loved the place, and in one particular painting the abbey of Montmajour figures in the background. Unfortunately, for nearly a century the experts considered this piece to be a fake, and through much of that time it led a rather obscure life in somebody’s attic. It continued to do just that until last week. That’s when a few art historians announced that Van Gogh had indeed painted this canvas after all. It was authentic, and it dated from his years as a mature artist. It was, they concluded, the first such Van Gogh to surface since the 1930’s.
Eighty years is no big deal to a medieval historian like me, but it’s an eon in the world of art historians. Not surprisingly, many of them could scarcely contain their excitement, and rivers of hype and superlatives have followed. Naturally, I’m happy for them. And I’m happy for the owner of this painting, who stands to reap a wheel-barrow load of Euros at the cash window. But I’m happiest for the monks. On September 10th the entire community, long-deceased and for the most part resident in heaven, got to see their monastery cited on page one of the Arts Section of The New York Times. They also got an honorable mention in The Wall Street Journal. Their work has not been in vain, and it had to be gratifying to them.
Despite the Cinderella slant to this story, there’s something that unsettles me just a bit. For fans of The Antiques Road Show, this is the mega-jackpot, of course. We’ve all dreamed of dragging our aunt’s old teapot out of the attic, only to have it appraised at $10,000. And who hasn’t fantasized about the true value of those old, in-mint-condition magazines stacked in the basement? But a forgotten painting in the attic that could fetch $50 million at auction? I don’t know about you, but that sounds like no attic I’ve ever been in. This is not your average attic, and you have to wonder what other auction-monsters the owner will drag out in the years to come.
Still more troubling is the sudden reversal of fortune for this painting. One day it is a useless piece of junk, good for nothing save collecting dust. The next day it is worth untold millions. What changed here? Certainly it was not the painting itself. Either it was as lovely on Tuesday as it was on Wednesday, or it wasn’t. This was definitely not a case of an ugly duckling evolving into a graceful swan in the course of a few hours.
There’s only one thing on which I can pin any change in character, and it’s this. It was the same painting before and after; but on one day it was a worthless forgery, and the next it was a $50 million Van Gogh. It’s as simple as a change of label. The subject may be anything from a landfill to a stray dog or a pick-up truck at a stop sign. But if it is a $50 million Van Gogh painting of a truck at a stop sign, it is breathtakingly beautiful.
I don’t mean to sound cynical here, but how else do you explain this? People could care less about a nondescript painting stored in the attic. But we will line up for twenty minutes and more to see a painting with a famous name on it. The fact is, we adore celebrities, and we love items with big price tags on them. And I suppose it’s also safe to conclude that anything expensive must also be beautiful.
Deep down I’m glad that the experts declared this to be an authentic Van Gogh. I’m delighted too for the owners and their lawyers, who no doubt watched from the sidelines with detached curiosity. I’m sure all were driven by their altruistic love of art in their quest to solve the mystery of this painting.
Conversely, I’m not at all surprised by the alacrity of the media in picking up on this story. It’s a good tale, and one that piques the imagination. But while it answers the question of authenticity on one level, it raises it on another.
For better and for worse, trend-setters do exactly that: they help us decide what we like, even before we know what it is we would like to like. It’s peer pressure and social convention that encourage us to ignore the beautiful fake in the attic, while we flock to see the famous mediocrity in the gallery. Too often we let others decide for us, when we should be making those judgments for ourselves.
That strikes me as the moral to take from all this. As people who aspire to be mature human beings, we must be the ones who decide what we like and dislike, and we ought not cede that to some expert. If something or someone is beautiful, they will be beautiful no matter what price tag the appraiser sticks on it. And if something means a lot to us, we need to cherish it now, rather than wait for an expert to tell us when it’s cool to do so. This too is a form of authenticity, and we are being authentic when we make decisions for ourselves.
At the end of the episode the owners of the new Van Gogh come out way ahead. Their lawyers come out way ahead. And perhaps a few art historians get a big boost to their careers. As for Van Gogh, he doesn’t get a penny from the upgraded sale price. With a well-established reputation, he scarcely needs the additional fame. But perhaps he gets some amusement from all this, because the whole thing has confirmed his appreciation of human nature once again.
But it’s the monks of Montmajour who must be pleased as punch. They went to Montmajour to seek God and not celebrity. But even a small appearance in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal has to be savored. And they can take solace in knowing that a few people have enjoyed a peek into the ruins of their monastery. But most of all, I hope they take pleasure in knowing that they’ve struck the spiritual imagination of at least somebody out there. If even one person joins them in the spiritual quest for authenticity, then those monks continue to fulfill their mission.
+Recently I took the opportunity to visit our confrere, Fr. Edward Vebelun, OSB, who in July became pastor at Saints Peter and Paul Church in Richmond, MN. The parish is just a few miles from Saint John’s, and monks have served as pastors there since 1856. It’s a lovely church, and the statue of Saint Benedict on the main altar shows the Benedictine connection clearly. It is noted for its huge German-style stations of the cross, as well as for the paintings that grace the ceiling of the church. The cycle of paintings include both men and women, saints and biblical figures. But it is the stained glass which I find stunning. The pictures in today’s post all come from Saints Peter and Paul Church.
+On September 9th I attended the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s. We were joined by three new members, including Fra Emmanuel Rousseau, KJ, of Paris; Fra Thomas Mulligan, KJ, of Chicago, and Mr. Michael Grace, a member of the Order of Malta from Pasadena, CA. Currently the Center assists in archival preservation projects in Malta as well as at the archives of the Grand Magistry of the Order of Malta in Rome.
+On September 14-15th I made a brief trip to Seattle, where I gave talks on The Saint John’s Bible at Epiphany Episcopal Church.