Saturday, 2 May 2015

Die ekstatische Jungfrau Katharina Emmerich

What do you do in a museum? What do you do with all these paintings and sculptures and frescos you are supposed to appreciate, evaluate, love? Would it not be so much easier of they were some kind of food you could swallow and then say just how hungry you are? The picture was good and you are sated. The picture was bad and you are starving. (I believe I once covered this in a Russian sketch.) Really, do you just look at them and hope that deep down you are becoming a better person?   

You can of course make notes and then never read them.

You can take photos and then delete them.

You can try to remember the name and the title and then happily forget both.

You can save the leaflet and then fail to recreate.

You can trust the old saying that ‘paintings heal’ and then die of pneumonia.

But I like the idea expressed by Julian Barnes in one of his recent articles: ‘Art does not just capture the thrill of life; sometimes, it is that thrill’.

A few months ago, in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, I saw a few paintings of Gabriel von Max, an Austrian artist whose most famous works were created at the end of the 19th century. And one painting in particular: “Die ekstatische Jungfrau Katharina Emmerich”. Katharina was a nun from a secularized German convent who reportedly experienced stigmata every Friday in 1813. But it was the vision that thrilled me. The grey whiteness of her dress, the crucifix which lay spread on her legs and the burning candle that looked so real you could almost feel the flame. Katharina’s face looked pale and painfully unhealthy, and the quiet torment seemed both frightening and fascinating. 

There is no such question as to what you should do in a museum. When you see something like that painting, and your mind is bereft of all rational thinking, when you can’t move, you know you’ve experienced it. But as soon as you can explain what it is, the world becomes just this much less special.