Good Letters

Painting of several men and women sitting around a table. The focus is on a woman in an elegant brocade who is handing the man food - she reaches across the table and cups the food in her palms that the man spears with a fork. A plate of fish bones and a goblet are also on the table. The man has a large feathered hat on and is to the left, slightly in the shadow. At his side, a man holds a large goblet to a dog that stands pointing with its nose up in front of the table. Behind the woman is dark green foliage, a spoke for a tent, and a woman in less elegant garb looking away to the right.A few weeks ago, I visited the Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Before I left to catch the train, I popped my Swedish great-aunt’s small ceramic squirrel into my bag, knowing that she’d want to come in some way. (She’s likely forcing a plate of pepparkakor and herring on the Almighty right now.)

The museum was only open for exhibit visitors, so the side rooms containing casts of Greek sculpture, Ottoman-era Persian miniatures, and an 1800’s Rwandan sword (one of my favorite pieces) were dark and roped off, though visitors could peer inside.

What is it about turning off the lights that reveals the life flowing through something inanimate? Museums are opportunities for falling deeply into unrequited love; the dark, forbidden rooms could entirely take you over.

But the crowds were largely Lutheran, I guessed; not a crowd given to losing their heads over the Doryphoros’ mighty muscles and fetchingly chipped backside. And truthfully, I was there partly to be around all the elderly people, to watch and learn how they cherish the bits of idea and heritage that lend us all strength.

There is something about elders and art, a stillness so at odds with experiencing the world through a screen, that is monumentally welcome to me. The other day, I passed an old man carrying a huge M&M cookie (also considered great art in my book), and all else but love fell away; that’s the reality I crave.

Someone close to me suffered from opioid addiction for years and often was very cruel. I used to feel hurt or even despised but then learned that opioids detach their users from reality, and I realized that, in a way, this person didn’t think of me as real. What could be more horrific than realizing someone you love knows that you exist but doesn’t think you’re real?

And now, with the opioids gone, I can feel the difference in being loved because I am seen.

This is something I’ve been thinking about with social media, which I enjoy, but which feels to me like an ideological opioid that can sometimes fix problems causing immense pain at the expense of viewing people as not entirely real. Yet recognizing or fixing a problem when you can’t see the realness of people too often leads to contempt, to a massive rupture with the outside world where men carry M&M cookies and wear what I just learned is called an “archaic smile.”

I think I was supposed to learn something about Martin Luther during my two-year confirmation process, but all of the information in the exhibit was a surprise. Though the intent of the exhibit was to demonstrate how art contributed to the Protestant Reformation, much of it focused on the elements of how people’s ideas are formed, transmitted, and always thoroughly mixed up.

One thing I remember from confirmation was the Catholic-bashing, almost as if a movement couldn’t exist on the strength of its own ideas without verbally annihilating other viewpoints. And while it’s certainly true that Luther’s 95 Theses throw a considerable amount of shade toward Italy’s western coast, the art created at the turn of the Reformation told a complicated story.

Luther was taken with Saint George and his dragon-slaying imagery. No one could forsake the archangels’ girlish curls and flaming weaponry. Every movement needs beauty, and Catholics had all the best art.

My favorite piece in the exhibit was the Double Pietà, carved in wood by an unknown artist so that the same image could be simultaneously viewed by a priest and the congregation. It featured, of course, Mary with the body of Christ draped over her bent knee. I started sobbing the minute I saw it, which is an excellent way to get some personal space in a crowd of Lutherans.

Religious art is strange and powerful: the Pietà is a human body, a godly body, and also a piece of inanimate material. Art triggers the emotional shock of what people of faith believe theoretically but would find exhausting if we allowed ourselves to encounter as often as possible: the movement of spirit underneath created things.

Luther actually denounced this animistic idea, but as with many things that have life of their own, yelling about it didn’t have that much of an effect.

The Minneapolis Institute of Art held meetings with interfaith groups to discuss if, or how, to address the hateful ways in which Luther spoke of Jewish people and their faith, and the response seemed to be that these facets of his character and writing should not be ignored. As a result, his anti-Semitic beliefs and writings form part of the exhibit. Presented with context and without being covered up or explained too heavily, they damn themselves.

The emotional response to the exhibit varied throughout the crowd. An elderly man said to his friend, “Look, Martin Luther may have actually played with these marbles,” and his friend looked at what appeared to be pebbles in a case and moved on, while the man stood and stared in fascination.

A woman and her boyfriend giggled at a woodcut featuring a dog lapping up a drunken man’s vomit-in-progress.

And yet, this art was dangerous. The Gotha panel altar, created by the workshop of Heinrich Füllmaurer in 1540, visually educated people who couldn’t read the Bible. Religious leaders then, in theory, could no longer get away with saying anything and claim, “It’s scripture!”

Visiting the exhibit, people could gaze at the Altar of St. Mary (flanked by St. Catherine and St. Barbara) from Naumberg Cathedral and think about Luther’s repudiation of the “cult of saints,” while wondering what it was they felt move beneath the art.

And when we finished with Martin Luther, we strangers in puffy coats could walk through the gilded exits and drink black coffee in the lobby, grateful for ways to encounter the realness and the seen-ness of each other amidst so much ideology.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Natalie Vestin

Natalie Vestin is a health scientist and writer from Saint Paul. Her essays have appeared in The Normal School, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Shine a Light, the Light Won’t Pass is forthcoming from Miel Books.

The above image by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

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