While I was overseas, the architect who designed the Louvre’s crystal pyramid, I.M. Pei, died at the age of 102. I went to the Louvre myself a few days later. It was a Saturday afternoon, and there was a long line angling past the upside-down pyramid within the underground shopping plaza. Visitors to the Louvre must pass through a security checkpoint before entering the large foyer. There, they can stand in another long line to buy a ticket if, like me, they did not have the foresight to purchase one online beforehand.
Halfway through my visit, after wandering through many large halls filled with renaissance and early and ancient and otherwise freakin’ old art, climbing up and down huge stairwells, and feeling lost and overwhelmed, I came across a window to the outdoors and snapped the photo above. It was raining quite hard. These two old robed figures were standing out there, getting wet, while keeping watch over the right-side-up pyramid. One of them even had a hand raised toward it in praise, or in happiness, or maybe because he just couldn’t help it.
But the main artwork I was in that vast building to see was not these two friends, nor even the pyramid, but rather Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. She is in her own, private room. To get to her, one must follow many signs, leading up stairways and through huge galleries. Finally, one happens across several other Da Vinci paintings. A sizeable group of people is often hovering around these; but soon they move on, and one is able to enjoy these paintings up close and personal.
Across the hallway is a cordoned-off section where one can stand in line to see Mona Lisa herself. Once entering the room, one can push through a huge crowd for five or ten minutes, taking care to safeguard one’s personal belongings, until one finally reaches the front of the crowd. Then, one can lean against the security belt and peer, in awe and astonishment, at the masterpiece, as she gazes back at you. You can stare at her and study her and be with her and enjoy looking at her for as long as the guards let you, which is generally only a few minutes.
At least, this is what I did upon reaching the security belt at the front of the crowd. Here’s what everyone else was doing:
Strangely, only a small percentage of the people here seem to be intently focused on experiencing the masterpiece before them. Many more are focused on taking photos of said masterpiece. This I struggle to understand. If I wanted a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, that is easily had. They are plastered all over the Louvre gift shops, indeed all over Paris—indeed all over the world. More probably, these folks wanted to share with their friends, on social media or elsewhere, the fact that they experienced the masterpiece in person. This is fine and wonderful and good: in fact, I am doing the same thing, right now!
The only problem is, they didn’t experience the masterpiece in person. The act of taking a close-up photo of the thing inhibits one from actually experiencing the thing, since your time before it is limited. But perhaps all these people already experienced it! Perhaps they already drank it in fully, and then got back in line and pushed through the crowd a second time, to take a photo. Do you think that’s what they did? This must’ve been what they all did. Yes? Right? No? Sigh. But since I wrote about this topic (direct experience of the real world vs. staying inside your own head) in this blog post about Matthew B. Crawford’s book The World Beyond Your Head, let’s move on to what I myself experienced.
I was amazed by the Da Vinci paintings in the hallway. I had seen reproductions of these in my art history class in college. I had a professor with a thick Italian accent who kept saying “I want you to understand.” Over and over she said this. But I never quite understood. Seeing the paintings in person, decades later, however? I understand now.
The people in the Da Vinci paintings pop out as real . . . unlike every other painting I saw that day (I must note that I did not see every painting in the Louvre, just a whole lot of them). More than this, they have expressions on their faces that convey serenity, confidence, and inner wisdom. You feel as though you are in the presence of someone who knows, who understands, but who isn’t necessarily telling. The paintings in the hallway have religious themes. Thus, they seem to express the divinity of God: the all-knowing, omnipresent One.
But our friend Mona Lisa is secular. This makes her expression particularly astounding. My thoughts upon first entering that packed room, all those bodies crowding up to get a glimpse of her, were as follows:
“How is she handling all of this attention? Is this gawking at a woman really appropriate in this #metoo era in which we live? If I were her, I would not enjoy being stared at, photographed, hashtagged, as if by predators, or paparazzi, or teenage groupies, all day long!”
But upon finally catching a glimpse of her, I realized that she has more than enough mental resources to endure any amount of gawking. Like the Virgin, Baby, Baptist, Angel, and others in the hallway, she was expressing serenity, confidence, and inner wisdom. However—and this is key, and elemental, and why our dear Mona Lisa is considered, above all, enigmatic—she was doing this without the benefit of being divinely appointed and consecrated by God. How is it possible for a person be so calmly in charge of herself, particularly a woman living in paternalistic times, particularly an ordinary, secular, workaday citizen?
She is an inspiration to us all.