When my phone pinged on Thursday morning, a photograph of me standing in front of Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges was the last thing I was expecting. “This made me smile,” my friend texted. “I just remembered how much you loved that day!”
I did love that day. We stood outside the Church of Our Lady for a full thirty minutes in minus fifteen degrees before someone finally took pity on us and let us into the church early. I rushed ahead, ignoring all the beauty around me. She was calling to me.
My friend told me afterwards that she tried so hard to get a photograph of me doing nothing but looking at Michelangelo’s masterpiece, glancing at her in that childlike awe expression I’ve been told I do when I find something I’m utterly in love with. Whenever she tried, though, I had my camera pointed at Madonna instead.
I took over three hundred photographs in that hour we sat before her. Each one, almost identical to the last.
Because it was the only way I could hold back the tears. There I was, standing in front of such beauty, over 500 years after it was created, feeling such incredible peace.
It’s rare for me to be moved to such extremes that I tear up in public. In fact, there are only two other times that pop into my mind:
The first is standing before Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks paintings, side by side, at an exhibition in Amsterdam.
The second is every time I walk into the V&A in London and am greeted by the towering figure of Michelangelo’s David.
I have no idea why, but they bring tears to my eyes whenever I'm blessed enough to be standing in their vicinity. Has it something to do with the intricacy of the brush strokes? The great expanse of colour? Or is it the knowledge that a single block of marble was discarded by artist after artist for forty years until the right person got hold of it and chiselled through to a seventeen foot statue of a biblical legend? What is it that overwhelms me so?
Earlier this month, I went to a photography exhibition at the Museum of London. There, I discovered Thierry Cohen’s Darkened Cities collection. Cohen’s method is simple yet incredibly affective. He photographs the world’s major cities, notes the precise time, longitude and latitude of his shot, and then tracks the earth’s rotations to find what stars would be visible in that sky if there was no pollution and merges the images together.
Having lived in London my entire life, walking through the London landscape he photographed everyday but without a single star in the sky, was nothing short than a punch to the gut to see this. This time, however, I knew exactly why the tears were there. Guilt. I was adding to that pollution. Every Londoner and tourist alike is adding to that pollution. But although that reason I understood, I still have no idea what it is that makes people cry while looking at artwork.
This question has been plaguing me this weekend My brain refuses to entertain any answers, it simply pushes the ‘stupid question’ aside and longs to move to discover the next piece of beauty: Michelangelo’s Pieta, Guillaume Geef’s Le Génie Du Mal, Alexandros of Antioch’s Venus de Milo…
If you have an answer, a theory, or a story about the time you found yourself welling up at artwork, I’d love to hear it. Get in touch with me via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org), leave a comment below or find me on Twitter at @GKSihat!