Scoffing, he said, ‘Couldn’t these people think of anything else to paint?’
If there ever was a case of art in the cause for Christ then this anecdote will certainly qualify.
In fact, as Peter Hitchens put it in his book The Rage Against God, 500 years after his death Van der Weyden was still earning his fee.
Stumbling across The Last Judgement
The story starts with Hitchens and his girlfriend visiting the Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune in search of fine foods and wines. Being seasoned travellers they strayed off the beaten path to explore the ancient hospital.
According to their Green Michelin guide, Roger Van der Weyden’s fifteenth century polyptych The Last Judgement, was a must see. So he and his girlfriend hoofed it to find it.
Upon coming across the apocalyptic altar piece Hitchens’ instinct was to scoff. He then leaned in to peer at the details of the painting–and gaped.
What struck Hitchens was the naked people in the painting didn’t appear to be from the fifteenth century A.D. Nor did they appear to be tribesman from the Neolithic Age. Nor any remote age for that matter.
They appeared to be his contemporaries. And “one of them is actually vomiting with shock and fear at the sound of the last trumpet.”
How The Last Judgement Changed Hitchens
Hitchens points out that this didn’t lead to a mystical experience. No vision or swoon. Just a sense that religion was real. It was current. Not distant or remote. But something just as important as the study of economics or psychology.
If not more important.
The other effect that Van der Weyden’s altarpiece had on Hitchens was that it gave him a sense that he was among the damned. If there were any damned. And like the feeling any good horror novel would give, Hitchens was scared.
Unlike a good horror novel, however, Hitchens couldn’t close the altarpiece and sink into the comfort of a bed or couch with the horror gone. This time his conscience had been spooked, and the fear remained. Yet he began to think very clearly.
Hitchensexplains that fear is a gift. It puts us on high alert when physical danger is near. It could be during a motorcycle accident, in a car surrounded by an angry mob or when a soldier is shooting into the crowd you are in. Whatever the situation, fear keeps us sober and calm so that we make wise decisions.
Hitchens walked away from Van der Weyden’s altarpiece chastened. And a little embarrassed. Embarrassed that it was fear that motivated him to seek God and atone for his sins. But he regards that the lesser of two evils.
Well said, Mr. Hitchens.
Has a piece of art–a painting, a novel, a play–ever scared your conscience? Did it play a part in driving you back to God?
Please comment. I would love to hear your thoughts.