Homesick Art

The Case for Returning Artefacts to their Homelands

Museums are not the unassailably venerable institutions they used to be. Nowadays, they are coming under increasing pressure to give back many of their treasures on the grounds that these were taken away, possibly stolen or bought for a heap of beads, and that they belong to the nations from which they were carried off. From the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin to the Rosetta stone in London, the Egyptian authorities have laid claim to artefacts associated with their ancient forbears. A summit was held in 2017 to discuss returning the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. Recently, a visiting delegation from Easter Island has called for the repatriation of one of its stone heads. Aboriginal groups demand that the body parts of their ancestors be sent home and, ever since they were shipped to England, there have been calls for the so-called ‘Elgin marbles’ to be returned to the Parthenon from which Lord Elgin ripped them. There has probably never been a more controversial time for the great museums of the old European capitals.

In a recent article in the Guardian, dated 20th February 2019 – as we shall see, this newspaper has been very thorough in its coverage of the issue – Alice Procter complained bitterly that museums were receptacles of ‘colonialist, imperialist fantasy’. When not being an art historian at University College, Procter is an unofficial guide whose Uncomfortable Art Tours aim to acquaint people with the actual origins of the artefacts they see around them. Unsurprisingly, she is not very popular with the museum authorities. This, she claims, is because they are ‘anxious institutions, paranoid to the point of hostility’. All she asks is for the keepers of these antiquities to be honest about where they got their stuff, and how: ‘Let people respond, and actually hear the hurt and harm that your collections perpetuate.’ In a time of renewed debate about empire and the presumptions of cultural superiority in the West, it is easy to see why the museums feel embattled.

So where does art belong? In some cases, the problem arises from the relative ease of transporting the art. A canvas, for instance. When the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911, the culprit turned out to be an Italian who had spirited it away to Florence because, by his own account, the French had stolen it from there. In fact, if anyone had ‘stolen’ the Mona Lisa, it was the artist himself, who took it with him to France in 1516, after which he sold it to Francis, his royal patron. It would be enough to make any Italian patriot sick to learn that Leonardo was his own art thief. Then, to compound the error, the treacherous Leonardo proceeded to expire in the wrong place, thus posing the delicate question of who should commemorate his death five hundred years later. It is not enough to ask where paintings belong; the same question must also be asked of artists. On the 2nd February 2019, the Guardian reported:

Negotiations have been stepped up this month to calm the row created when Lucia Borgonzoni, a League MP and undersecretary at the ministry of culture, suggested that her government would cancel the loan of some key paintings and drawings agreed two years ago with Italian museums, accusing France of trying to take centre stage in Leonardo commemorations and “putting Italy on the margins of a major cultural event”. To make her point, she added: “Leonardo is Italian; he only died in France.”

Surely it is but a matter of time before there are renewed calls for Mona Lisa to return to her native Italian climes, regardless of the fact she shows no obvious sign of pining for them.

The tone of this, the sour note of affronted nationalism, derives from a very different ideology to the slightly shrill tone of Alice Procter. These voices are actually from opposite ends of the argument, from the jingoistic on the one hand and the anti-imperial on the other. The museums are being attacked from left and right, with both ideologies threatening the museums’ claims to what Procter calls ‘a tidy, completist dream’. Curators must feel like they are walking along the sea’s edge – as the tide of history continues to ebb, so more sand gives way beneath their feet.

But what do they really have to fear? I shall look at three different examples of artefacts that are not (as so few are) where they began in life. Firstly, I shall consider a monumental stone figure that actually looks homesick for Easter Island. Then I shall return to the oldest controversy of them all, one that dates back to the moment the sculptures of the Parthenon were removed from Athens. In the second canto of ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, published between 1812 and 1818, Byron addresses Greece:

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see

Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed

By British hands…

These gorgeous, though definitely mouldering, stones have resided for two hundred years in Room 18 of the British Museum and are surely the most famous examples of homesick art in the world.

Finally, I shall consider an image by Caravaggio for which I have a particular soft spot. As a canvas it might as well be anywhere; I just hope, for purely selfish reasons, it stays put.

THE CLAIMS IF EAST ISLANDERS

One place that is definitely inaccessible to most people is Easter Island. Known to its inhabitants as Rapa Nui, the island belongs to Chile, but is located thousands of miles from its coast in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. There, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, a weird landscape was first glimpsed by Europeans. It was populated by the most far-flung of Polynesian islanders. Almost treeless, the landscape was dotted with the giant heads of men carved from the local volcanic rock and transported (some say they walked) to their present positions, sometimes in a row, some with their eyes averted from the sea, some with no eyes at all.

These heads are disquieting. They have a haunting quality that makes them, once seen, hard to forget. Their faces are long and the brows are heavy. The lips of their mouths are pursed as though with grim determination. The expression is invariably sombre. It is as if they have long ago abandoned the full range of normal human emotions. They seem disenchanted by the world, their minds on higher things.

It is hard to believe that Salvador Dali had not seen one of these heads. Maybe he remembered it, without knowing where he had seen it, while he was painting Sleep. The head in this picture has the same look of profound severity. It is held suspended by a series of thin props that seem ready to snap under its weight at any moment. The face is abstracted, the eyes sunken in a pool of shadow and, most peculiar of all, it wears a kind of veil where its ear might be, a tiny curtain with vertical folds.

If you look closely at the Easter Island heads, they also have no ears, but some of them have a long flap where the ears should be. These flaps, longer than Dali’s little curtain, are equally mysterious. Like Dali’s head, and despite the fact they are carved from rock, there is a sense of suspension about these statues. In fact, a legend on the island maintains that they were transported across the terrain, not by vehicles of any kind, since there were none, but by an old woman’s sorcery. Nowadays there are theories, hardly more unlikely at first sight, that the statues were indeed ‘walked’ across the ground, by means of ropes, from the quarry to the long platforms on which they stand in rows. Some of them bear odd stones of a different colour on their heads. Others have eyes, as if the feeble props of sleep have snapped and, rudely awoken, they survey the denuded landscape of their island. There is a theory that timber was used in transporting them and hence the deforestation of the place. But with Easter Island, as with its inscrutable heads, everything, including the history of its indigenous people, is as mysterious as a half-forgotten dream.      

Ever since I discovered one of these heads – known as a Moai – near the back of the British Museum, I have loyally returned to it. Called Hoa Hakananai’a, it is uncertain what this means. Some have translated it as ‘surfer’, ‘surf-rider’ or ‘master wave-breaker’. It has also, with a hint of retrospection, been called ‘lost-or-stolen friend’ and even ‘hidden friend’.

It is hard to imagine how one would go about hiding a seven-foot basalt statue. Nonetheless, this colossus manages to remain inconspicuous in a museum filled with colossi. Once found, however, it is not easily forgotten. It has the same stern expression as its brothers back in the empty expanse of the Pacific. It also has strange nipples that few of the other statues share, perhaps because they lack a torso, and on its back are petroglyphs associated with the birdman cult on Rapa Nui. It has the same odd flaps where the ears should be and, lacking eyes, its empty sockets glare from under the heavy brows in eternal resentment at its surroundings. Homesickness: it’s an epidemic in today’s great museums.

So how did this statue come to be so far from home? How is it possible that some hundred and fifty years ago it was presented to Victoria who, in turn, gifted it to the British Museum? It is maintained that the crew of the frigate HMS Topaze who were responsible for bringing all four tonnes of it back to British shores, didn’t even think to ask permission. They simply picked it out as one of the best examples of the genre and nicked off with it. Those were the glory days of empire. At the time it must have seemed like a bit of a jape, the kind of story you could dine out on for years in the men only clubs of the metropolis.   

In November of last year, a delegation from the island showed up in that same metropolis and headed straight for the statue. Among them was the island’s governor, Tarita Alarcón Rapu, who made an emotional plea for the statue to be returned. “My grandma, who passed away at almost 90 years, she never got the chance to see her ancestor,” she said. Close to tears, she added “I am almost half a century alive and this is my first time.”

It might be asked why this particular statue is so sorely missed. After all, there are almost nine hundred, some estimate over a thousand, such statues distributed across the island.

The first thing one learns with such cases is the need for basic human empathy. Without it, one wonders how we could ever attach value to art at all, unless we were bankers looking to invest vast reserves of cash in financially appreciating objects. It is refreshing, given the venal state of the world’s art markets, to hear the way the governor talked about the Moai. “I believe that my children and their children also deserve the opportunity to touch, see and learn from him,” she told the Guardian (20th November 2018). “We are just a body. You, the British people, have our soul.”

For museum curators, it’s a pretty bad day at the office when someone comes asking for their soul back. However, the initial signs are that the distraught governor will be disappointed. The most the museum has been prepared to offer is a loan of the statue: “The museum is one of the world’s leading lenders and the trustees will always consider loan requests subject to usual conditions,” a spokeswoman said. Sadly, a loan was not what the delegation had in mind.

Since then, the Guardian has reported further developments. There are now fears that many of the statues on Rapa Nui are in danger of crumbling away under what has been called a ‘leprosy’ of lichen that affects the surfaces with white spots and turns them to mush. ‘The statues must also contend with coastal erosion, rising sea levels that will worsen with climate change, high winds and damage from freely roaming livestock, having withstood the elements for more than half a millennium’ (Guardian, 1st March 2019).

More to the point, the mayor of Easter Island Commune, Pedro Edmunds Paoa, has stopped asking for the statue to be returned. Instead, he has suggested Hoa Hakananai’a could act as an ‘ambassador’ and Britain could keep it in return for regular payments to ensure the upkeep of its faraway lookalikes. “We would win much more,” the mayor said.

Who knows, the museum may yet be able to resort to the classic Lord Elgin defence and claim they are preserving the piece for the world, just by keeping it tucked up in Bloomsbury. The best cure for homesickness is the knowledge that your ‘home’ has lately become a hostile environment.

THE PARTHENON MARBLES
On the 12th of July 2015, the Greeks were really up against it with the European Union. The country had voted against the terms of a further bailout in a referendum called by the new populist government and now there was open talk of a kind of fire sale of Greek assets to save the country from bankruptcy. As the BBC’s ‘Inside Europe: Ten Years of Turmoil’ reported, things had become so dire that ‘it had even been suggested they sell the Parthenon.’

It is worth noticing that ‘even’. It is as if the very idea was so shocking that no one dared voice it. Only a financier could be so brutish. The Parthenon. Almost instinctively, the idea of desecrating such a monument to the Athens of Pericles, to the first democracy in European history and to the art of Phidias, was enough to give any European the collywobbles. How could such a thing happen? And yet it is doubtful that, even at this moment of thinking the unthinkable, anyone seriously contemplated that the entire temple would be removed from the Acropolis and sent, like the old London Bridge, to some remote place never to be seen by impoverished Athenians again. No, the likely fate of this and various uninhabited islands was to be bought by a billionaire and turned to profit, rather like all the other state assets have been treated, ever since the rosy-fingered dawn of neoliberalism.

It never happened. The Greeks abandoned the struggle, accepted an even more punishing austerity package than the one they had rejected in their referendum, and the temple remained theirs, a ruin scarcely more tangible than the financial ruin they were left with.

Back before the Greeks had managed to cast off the shackles of the Ottoman Empire, however, they had not been so lucky. Notoriously, before anyone had heard of bailouts and austerity packages, a Scot by the name of Lord Elgin, ambassador to Constantinople, really had carried large parts of the Parthenon away. That time round, the Greeks didn’t even see the proceeds from the sale as that, mostly in the form of bribes, ended up in Turkish pockets. To a certain outsider’s perception, it might look like the boldest, most audacious art theft of all time, but that would be to pre-judge the whole affair and, just possibly, make Elgin look more remarkable than he really was.

In his book ‘The Parthenon Marbles’, the late Christopher Hitchens, contrarian par excellence, denounces Elgin all over again, but there is surprisingly little of the spiky contrarian in Hitchens’ tone. Instead, he patiently unfolds the sorry tale of an ambassador to Constantinople who exceeded his brief and, with the aid of a so-called ‘firman’ from the Ottoman authorities and some dodgy accomplices, ravaged the Acropolis of its finest jewels.

The story has more than its fair share of ‘what ifs’. For instance, what if Elgin had left the marbles in place? Would they have survived? What if he had taken to Athens, as was briefly mooted, the painter Turner to record the ruins, instead of an ‘illustrator down on his luck’ by the name of Giovanni Lusieri? This same Lusieri confessed in a letter to Elgin that, though he had managed to remove the eighth metope (a panel depicting a centaur carrying off a woman), he had ‘been obliged to be a little barbarous’. What if the other collaborators in the heist, a trustee of the British Museum by the name of William Hamilton and a man of the cloth, the Reverend Philip Hunt, had been less compliant? Hunt at least seems to have been rather over-keen to please and proposed at one point to remove the entire caryatid porch of the Erechtheion. In the end, they made do with one caryatid. What if Elgin and his merry gang had never got their hands on the ambiguous permit (the firman) from Constantinople? What if the Turks had not been grateful to the British for Nelson’s victory at the battle of the Nile? And so the ‘what ifs’ proliferate.    

Beyond all this, however, we have the simple fact that the heist worked and to this day, owing to an act of parliament from the time, the British Museum is obliged to refer to the marbles as Elgin’s. Controversy has attended the pieces from the very day they arrived here. Indeed, it’s such a long-standing issue, I only have time to pick out some of the choicest highlights.

One of the fiercest critics was around at the time of their removal. Lord Byron, possibly history’s most illustrious philhellene – to this day, Greek sons are named after him – gave no quarter to his fellow noble lord, Elgin, who happened to be a Scot and therefore came from:

A land of meanness, sophistry and mist,

Each breeze from foggy mount and marshy plain

Dilutes with drivel every drizzly brain’ (‘Curse of Minerva’)

Ah, meanness, that old canard. The dim view taken here of the Scottish climate was in contrast, of course, to the brightness and sublimity associated with the ancient cradle of Western civilisation. Byron tells Athena ‘thy plunderer was a Scot’ and even calls Elgin ‘a Pict’. He saw the damage to the Parthenon as being greater than that inflicted by previous barbarians, such as the Goths. It was almost certainly a reader of Byron, therefore, who scrawled these words on the wall of the Erechtheion: Quod non fecerunt Goti, hoc fecerunt Scoti. What the Goths had failed to do, the Scots had done. It was a Scot who had come, in this late chapter of the temple’s history, to tear chunks out of it and ship them away to dismal shores. Maybe Elgin thought he could make amends by building a Parthenon in Edinburgh, but the money ran out and it never got further than the few columns that can be seen today.

The story is not all terrible. Speaking of the way the marbles are now divided between England and Greece, Hitchens says ‘Let no one say that there have not been some excellent consequences of their separation’. Keats saw his heifer ‘lowing at the skies’ not on a Greek urn, but in the frieze from the Parthenon. Hazlitt hoped (in The Examiner, June 1816) that the marbles’ arrival in London might ‘lift the fine arts out of the limbo of vanity and affectation’. Anyone who has the chance to linger with these objects can feel that sensation. Even in their ruined state, the works have a vitality that belies their antiquity. Nonetheless, it is hard to read Keats’ phrase ‘Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness’ without thinking of the sound of the saw. Keats might well have seen, in the denuded building on the Acropolis, a bride that had been ravished.

Nonetheless, it is the Greeks themselves who have felt that wrong most keenly. A famous example was the redoubtable Melina Mercouri, Greek actress turned Minister for Culture, who spoke passionately at the Oxford Union in favour of returning the marbles. There is wonderful footage of her brief encounter with the Keeper of the British Museum at that time, Sir David Wilson, arguing with him on the museum steps. “You want to ruin the British Museum!” he cries. Later, he tore into the people who wanted to return the marbles, calling them ‘cultural fascists.’ Mercouri remained undaunted.

These few words from the Greek novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis, in his book ‘England’ (1939), have the authentic flavour of Greek disappointment. Kazantzakis was, after all, a great fan of English culture:

‘In her sooty vitals, London stores these marble monuments of the gods, just as some unsmiling Puritan might store in the depths of his memory some past erotic moment of blissful and ecstatic sin.’

Maybe this is based on crude national self-esteem on the novelist’s part. Essentially, it is ‘No sex please, we’re British’ versus the pure nakedness of Hellenic beauty. Thus, it is one unproven and unverifiable cliché meeting another. Yet the image lingers like a bad conscience.

For years it was insinuated that Greek people had no real claim to the marbles, that they were not the true inheritors of their own ancient civilisation, they were not even truly ‘Greek’ anymore and that, besides, they didn’t care. The single story that most aptly refutes these assertions dates back to 1821 and the Greek War of Independence. The Greeks had managed to besiege the Turks in the Acropolis, but were told that the garrison were melting the lead clamps of the buildings to make improvised bullets, whereupon a prominent member of the Greek army, Kiriakos Pittakis, had a quantity of lead bullets sent to the enemy ‘so that they might desist from their acts of destruction’. This must be a unique instance in the annals of military history of a besieging army supplying the other side with ammunition. Pittakis went on to become the first General Keeper of Antiquities of Greece.

The building of New Acropolis Museum has transformed this civilised, but no less bitter, dispute forever. Now that there exists a perfect modern home for the marbles, the British Museum has to abandon its claim to be protecting the stones. I won’t dwell on the little matter of the copper wire brushes once used (in the Thirties) to ‘clean’ them. That decision aroused the wrath of Jacob Epstein at the time. The essence of Hitchens’ argument has less to do with the ‘crime’ of holding onto, and maybe even abusing, the artefacts, and more to do with the opportunity to reunify them. This is necessary and right, because Athens retains half the sculptures and the Parthenon was intended as a unified work of art. It is this argument that applies uniquely to these works, long after the arguments about the ‘what ifs’ end in stalemate. It is ignorant to the point of imbecilic to speak, as one would-be peacemaker has recently spoken, of sharing the marbles between the two countries (see Florian Schmidt-Gabain, ‘My solution to the Parthenon marbles – let’s split them in half’, Guardian, 15th February 2019). The whole point is to display them in one geographic location, and for that the shadow of the Acropolis is the obvious candidate. Thus, to the already existing categories of ‘restitution’, ‘return’ and ‘repatriation’, Hitchens added his own: reunification. As Nadine Gordimer underlined in her introduction, it is to restore a ‘narrative brutally interrupted’.
 
The new museum in Athens means that this is really no longer an argument for or against museums. It is an argument for one specific museum as opposed to another. I reckon, on balance, the Greeks have a better claim not only to the marbles, but to the arts of persuasion.     

CARAVAGGIO'S SUPPER AT EMMAUS

Who would have the temerity to predict which way the art critic Jonathan Jones will side on issues of controversy? You can never be sure. I suspect this is because, like Boris Johnson, he writes a defence and a denunciation of the same thing. It’s what one was taught at school, you know; it’s the basis of the adversarial model for law; it’s called framing an argument. So, Jones writes the for and the against, then he throws them both (or so I suspect) up in the air and goes with the one that lands face up. If they both happen to land that way, or neither do, he throws them up again. It’s a laborious process, but it means he has twice as many pieces to contribute to the tome they publish at the end of his career. He was always even-handed his fans will say, while his critics will carp that he could never make up his mind.

When it came to the most long-standing of all controversies, therefore, Jones wrote the usual two articles, pro and con. On this occasion, however, the way the two alternative arguments fell was most unfortunate, owing to the idiocy of the one that landed face up. In this piece he attacked the very notion that ancient Greece, a civilisation that flourished 2,500 years ago, is somehow the cultural possession of modern Greece, that its achievements belong to Greece in some narrow national way. If that were true, no one outside Greece would study mathematics, philosophy or history, see a play, or do a scientific experiment – for all these fundamental human pursuits were invented by the ancient Greeks.

 




Employees arrange the painting 'Supper at Emmaus' (1600-1601) by Italian painter Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi) at the Kunst Palast museum in Duesseldorf, 07 September 2006. (Getty)

This is not so much damning the Greeks with faint praise as damning them with glowing recommendations. What did the Greeks ever do for us? Well, there was the mathematics, and the philosophy or history, and the drama, and…

Still, I can hear Jones’s emollient tones now, gently reassuring: “It’s okay everyone, calm down, I know what I wrote was silly. I will publish the sensible piece, I promise, when this is all over, after I retire.”

One suspects that the basis for this kind of contemptuous attitude (when entertained in all honesty) is what Hitchens calls the ‘saloon-bar, dog-in-the-manger argument of “where will it all end?”’ To their credit, Hichens says, most of the British public do not share this anxiety.

That doesn’t mean we can recruit Hitchens to the current trend of calling for restitution, return and repatriation on a grand scale, to atone for our imperial sins and to empty the pernicious museums of their ill-gotten booty. Hitchens had no such object in mind, not least because it would have diminished the credibility of his argument for the returning the marbles, which he based on their uniqueness.    

It is perfectly possible to hold these two thoughts in one’s head at the same time, though at risk of emulating Jonathan Jones: certain artefacts really do have an air of homesickness about them and ought to be returned to their homeland, while the vast majority of artefacts have no such incongruity and might as well be here as there. So it is that one can be grateful for the existence of certain artefacts in the places that fate or taste or money has placed them. To feel a tremor of guilt in such cases would be masochistic. It is right and proper that most beautiful objects stay where they are.

Let me give you an example. Whenever I’m lucky enough to find myself in the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, I always head for Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus. I never tire of the painting’s bravado, strange as that word might seem to describe a religious scene, and I navigate my way around the rest of the gallery from there. I would hate to turn up one day and find it had been repatriated. It’s a strange image. It even has something to tell us about the whole issue of accessibility. But first, let me describe what fascinates me about it.

Rather than the usual blond young man with a fair beard, a distinctly plump Jesus dominates the picture. He has a chubby face and wild, unkempt hair. It’s almost as if Caravaggio has tried to demonstrate how easily Jesus could go unrecognised. But it is the subtle gesture of blessing he offers when the food arrives that gives the game away. His disciples, who met him along the way but have so far remained oblivious to his identity, are covered in confusion the moment the gesture is made. The one on his left might even be able to see a hole left by a nail in the palm of the young man’s hand. He opens his arms wide in astonished recognition, unconsciously replicating the crucifixion, while the other juts his threadbare elbow in our direction and seems about to leap to his feet, possibly knocking his chair over in the process. All the time the innkeeper looks on impassively, unaware that he is seeing a ghost.

Each time I visit this picture there is something different that catches my eye. Sometimes it’s the characters. Sometimes it’s the still life of the food that Jesus is blessing, which Caravaggio renders with a kind of photographic intensity. Like the fleeting gesture that astonishes the disciples, the precarious state of the fruit bowl, perched on the edge of the table, threatens to change in the next instant, while mortality (which has been thrown into question by the dumpy stranger) remains stubbornly present in the very scrawny roast chicken.

I don’t know why this painting is where it is. I have no idea of its ‘provenance’, as the curators and art historians like to say. I only know that I will always find it here, in this same spot on the earth’s surface, like a still point in the universe. If I go in the week, maybe early or late in the day, I can even have it all to myself for the cost of a train ticket into the capital. It’s a supreme piece of visual magic by a true master of the dark arts, depicting what a former Bishop of Durham once mischievously referred to as “a conjuring trick with bones”. Chicken bones, to be exact; a still life, where life as we know it is static and nature is dead. The spirit alone has life here.
 
According to Luke, the central figure is an ephemeral apparition. Jesus disappeared soon after blessing the meal. We are catching a glimpse of a man who promised to rise from the dead and here he is. But for those who commissioned the painting, the question of where ‘here’ might be was of little interest. In a dingy interior, definitely not the kind we might expect from a Dutch painter, the figures are well lit as if they had a spotlight trained upon them from the left of the picture, and Jesus (to emphasise, perhaps, his corporeal solidity) casts a large shadow. There are no haloes. There is nothing that tells us this is Emmaus, apart from the title. The scene might just as well be outside Rome as a few miles from Jerusalem. The mundane setting is part of the message, as the main figure of the picture has transcended time and space.

There is a book, written in the Thirties by Carlo Levi (who was exiled from Rome by Mussolini) called ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’: ‘The title of the book comes from an expression by the people of Gagliano who say of themselves, ‘Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli’ which means, in effect, that they feel they have been bypassed by Christianity, by morality, by history itself—that they have somehow been excluded from the full human experience.’ 

Nothing about Eboli is significant – it is no more than a dull little town in the sticks – except for this one rumour about the place, the idea that Christ has never reached it. Eboli has a forlorn pagan air. Flyblown, frowsy, full of superstitions, its inhabitants behave as if they have never received the good news from Emmaus.

In Caravaggio’s picture, Christ has arrived in a place resembling Eboli. In fact, at this moment in human history the whole world is one big Eboli. It is not important when and where exactly Eboli is, as Eboli is everywhere, a vast conurbation of monotonous life and death, devoid of meaning. Yet here, in this Eboli, the reign of earthly time has been suspended and place means nothing any more. Something about the world has changed. This strange Emmaus-Eboli has been redeemed.

One day the painting itself will not be here. I’m not saying this because Caravaggio’s paintings are frequently the targets of art thieves. It will not be here because the world will not be here, yet the painting tells us that doesn’t matter. The whole subject of the painting is eternity. The world has already passed away. I know I’m in danger of sounding a little bit airy-fairy here. Besides, I am only fixating on the message of one particular artefact. How could one impose this airy-fairy interpretation on all works of art? The end of the world may not happen as soon as some iconoclasts would like to think, and for as long as I am on the planet there is a fair chance that Caravaggio’s painting will stay, reliably, in the same spot.

Whether it belongs here, on the other hand, has never been an issue for me, but then why would it be? I live a mere half hour’s train ride away from Emmaus. This, however, is an urgent issue for the museums. Boring as it may sound, and far from the airy-fairy meditations, their present trials may be summed up in one word: accessibility. If the Caravaggio painting is telling me not to give a fig where it’s located, fine, so long as I have the privilege of being able to go back for the reminder.


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