For Art’s Sake

One of my favorite pics from my semester in Graz. "Where is the art?" Who knows? :)
One of my favorite pics from my semester in Graz. “Where is the art?” Who knows? 🙂

It’s a new year. And one of my resolutions is to be more honest about my own weaknesses. So here is my first confession of 2014: I have a terrible memory for historical details… And I’m a historian-in-training. Uh-oh.

Fortunately, though, I don’t have a hard time remembering all details, just certain types of details. And military history is among the worst. I came face to face with this shortcoming during my junior year of college when I signed up for a class called “Civil War and Reconstruction.” I breezed through the first third of the course about the “antebellum period” (#SATword) and the last third about Reconstruction. But that pesky little third in the middle? Well, it posed a significant problem. You see, no matter how hard I studied, how often I quizzed myself, and how many flashcards I made and mneumonic devices I created (Ex: “Pea Ridge was no Confederate glee ridge”) , I simply could not remember anything about the Civil War itself. It just wouldn’t stick. And unfortunately, as you’ve probably guessed, in a class titled “Civil War and Reconstruction,” the Civil War is pretty significant. If it hadn’t been the generous help of my classmate John (who, incidentally, is now a PhD student in American Military History), I likely would not have passed that test. And even with all his help, keeping Appomattox Courthouse and Antietam straight in my brain was still an uphill—and often losing—battle. (Pun intended; metaphor accurate). I am just not cut out to be a war buff.

But if my comprehension of military history is terrible, my understanding of Art History is abysmal. Through high school and college, I had ample opportunities to enrich my knowledge of art through numerous European history courses. But as with military history, no matter how much I tried, I just couldn’t retain the information. And to make my situation even more pathetic, I’ve seen much of this artwork firsthand. During my semester in Graz, I visited the Louvre, toured the papal museum at the Vatican, and wandered through most of the major art museums of Rome, Florence, and Venice. But apart from a handful of “big name pieces” (the ones that even Jeff Foxworthy’s 5th graders should know about), I can’t remember the specifics of what I’ve seen. If it weren’t for the hundreds of pictures I took, I would have absolutely no recollection. And this isn’t from a lack of effort either. It’s just that no matter how hard I try, Art History simply doesn’t stick in my brain.

There is one exception, however. In the sea of nameless (or better, names I’ve forgotten) artwork, a small collection of pieces stand out.

At the Accademia Gallery in Florence, just down the hall from the larger-than-life shepherd boy David, is a small group of work that Michelangelo never finished. These sculptures, together known as the Four Prisoners, were intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but they were never completed. The Pope halted work on his funerary memorial, and Michelangelo found himself busy with other projects. When he moved to Rome in 1534, he left the Four Prisoners behind in his workshop, never to be completed. Today these half-carved sculptures stand neatly in a row, waiting for tourists like me to stop and stare. What were they supposed to be? How did Michelangelo want them to look? While we’ll never know for sure the answers to these questions, as I sat down to rest my aching study-abroad feet, I couldn’t help but wonder. What was the master creating them to be?

Four Prisoners

And that’s exactly why, 3.5 years later, I can’t get these four sculptures out of my mind. Because even though Michelangelo didn’t finish them, you can still feel what he wanted them to be. And even though they are made of cold hard marble, you can’t help but think that they are almost alive. It’s almost as if these half-completed sculptures spent their entire existence trapped, just waiting for the master to set them free. As if at Michelangelo’s touch, they began to stir and wake and they have spent the last six centuries straining against the stone that constrains them, hoping for that moment when the master’s work will be finished, and they will finally be complete, finally be who he intended them to be.

Just like me. And just like all of us.

You see, like those Four Prisoners, we are each trapped inside a block of brokenness and sin. Yet the Master has claimed us, and He recognizes a beauty in me—in each of us—that we cannot see in ourselves. In His hands, our marble hearts become malleable. He patiently carves away the uneven places, the broken spots, the jagged edges–everything that doesn’t look like Him. And just like Michelangelo with his chisel, He patiently transforms us into the beautiful new creations He made us to be. This is redemption in action; this is what God does for us.

For reasons unbeknownst to me, Michelangelo never finished these sculptures. Maybe he got tired of working on them, maybe he moved onto what seemed like more promising projects, maybe they were just too heavy to haul to his new studio in Rome. Or maybe, like me, he saw in these unfinished Four Prisoners the message of restoration. Maybe he recognized in them, as I did, the beautiful tension of a creation ready to finish becoming.  And even though Michelangelo never finished this work, our Master will. We know that “that He who began a good work in [us] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). Because of this, I have hope. He’s not finished with me yet. And if you are in Christ, the same is true for you. So here’s to another year of the Master’s transforming work in our lives. Although we don’t know how it will turn out, we can rest assured that He won’t give up on us. Not for art’s sake, but for our sake.

… And maybe, just maybe, He can even help me understand military history. 😉

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