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Sunday, July 03, 2005

A Tale of Two Portraits

One of the coolest things I saw in New York was the Frick Collection. It's a small and intimate museum, and it displayed works by almost all of my favorite artists: Vermeer, El Greco, Velasquez... My favorite work was Holbein's portrait of St. Thomas More. It was displayed in an interesting way: it was hanging to the left of a large fireplace, and on the other side was Holbein's portrait of Thomas Cromwell - the man who destroyed the monasteries and took over Thomas More's position when he resigned.

It was almost like the two of them were looking at each other. The colors and details were so much clearer than in these images - there is nothing like seeing the original of an artwork! The brown-looking cord behind Thomas More is actually a deep scarlet. His velvet sleeves look almost like real velvet. And his face...

Holbein wasn't intending to produce an icon when he made this potrait. But I felt as though I were looking at one. As I stood in front of it, I thought: Holbein was looking into Thomas More's face, into his eyes, nearly five hundred years ago. He was painting just what he saw. It's like I'm seeing Thomas More's reflection. So I just looked and looked for the longest time. His eyes were incredibly steadfast. His mouth was serious, but it was impossible to resist the vision of a smile flashing over his face. You could imagine him relaxing from that carefully aranged pose, laughing and coming over to see what Holbein had created. Holbein really caught something of his character, as described by Erasmus in a wonderful letter:

His countenance is in harmony with his character, being always expressive of an amiable joyousness, and even an incipient laughter and, to speak candidly, it is better framed for gladness than for gravity or dignity, though without any approach to folly or buffoonery.... In human affairs there is nothing from which he does not extract enjoyment, even from things that are most serious. If he converses with the learned and judicious, he delights in their talent, if with the ignorant and foolish, he enjoys their stupidity. He is not even offended by professional jesters. With a wonderful dexterity he accommodates himself to every disposition. As a rule, in talking with women, even with his own wife, he is full of jokes and banter. No one is less led by the opinions of the crowd, yet no one departs less from common sense.

I just love St. Thomas More.

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