Fate and Faith at the Gardner Museum

          The Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston is my museum.  When I first walked in those many years ago I felt that I had returned to a place I had never been.  The museum is a reproduction of a 15th Century Italian palazzo with imported marble and a mosaic courtyard.  Each room is decorated and filled with art from a specific period, style or country in livable spaces with tables, chairs, couches, lanterns, art objects, letters.  The paintings on the walls are by Titian, Rembrandt, Bellini, Botticelli, Sargent, Velazquez, Raphael, Rubens and other renowned artists.  By her will, Mrs. Gardner specified that nothing in the museum could be moved or changed, ever. The rooms are exactly as they were when she was alive and will remain that way always. I found extraordinary comfort in this.  Every time I visited, everything would be just the same.  I would change, the world would change, but not this place. 
          When I visited periodically over the years, I could find the objects I loved exactly where they had been before, waiting for me.  At night I would conjure the paintings, the Rembrandt, the Vermeer and the Botticelli, my favorites, and picture them where they were fixed in the dark.

          “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” is a large canvas in a gold frame that hangs directly in front of you as you enter the Dutch Room.   When I first entered the room I noticed it immediately.  It seemed to glow – the spray of the water radiating like the sun.  The painting depicts the twelve apostles with Jesus in a boat on the Sea of Galilee taken from the Gospel of Mark 4:35 – 40.


And the same day, when the even was come, he saith unto them, Let us pass over unto the other side.
And when they had sent away the multitude, they took him even as he was in the ship.
And there were also with him other little ships.
And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.
And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish?
And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still.
And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.
And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith? (King James version).


          Jesus had fallen asleep, exhausted from a day of preaching to the crowd.  In the passage before the storm scene, Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed.  The colors of the painting are shades of blue and gold and appear luminescent.  You can see Jesus asleep and sense the fear of the apostles.  All the apostles are accounted for – five frantically attending to the sails, others surrounding Jesus, asking, “should we wake him?”  And one, a self portrait of Rembrandt, calmly looks out at the viewer.  “I am here and I am not afraid, would not have been afraid. You come, too.”  Standing there looking at the painting you believe you can enter.  Standing a few short feet away the painting seems large enough for you to believe you can.  Even though it is the height of the storm, you know the ending, you can join them in the boat. You have faith and believe.  Standing there you hear the water, the waves crashing so loudly that you hear nothing else.

Vermeer Concert

          Behind you now, by the window, is “The Concert” by Vermeer.  It is also displayed so you can see the painting as you walked into the Dutch Room, to the right of the door.  I heard tales of how its location beside the window vexed the curators. How dare Mrs. Gardner place the Vermeer where it would be exposed to sunlight, though dappled through the bamboo shade.  But where else could a painting by the master of light live?  The painting depicted above the singer in “The Concert” is “The Procuress” by Dirck Van Baburen, at the time owned by Vermeer’s mother-in-law.  “The Procuress” now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, a short distance from the Gardner Museum.  I enjoyed the thought.  The paintings were close, nearly reunited – like old friends long separated who may at any time discover they live but a few streets away from each other.  I loved the room in the painting; the distinctive and sharp black and white floor.  I never see a black and white checkered floor without thinking of Vermeer and then  . . . .  I never thought “I want a painting like that, as beautiful as that.”  I thought, “I want a room like that.  I could live in a room like that.  And look, Vermeer left space to dance.  I could dance in a room like that.” 


          “The Madonna of the Eucharist” by Botticelli is upstairs on the third floor.  First you pass through a grand red room with “The Rape of Europa” by Titian, a large dark and violent painting.  If you then take a right into a long, narrow room, you will miss the Botticelli.  It is to the left, behind you.  It seems small after the grandeur, light and air of the room you just passed. The space is intimate.  There are three figures in the painting.  An angel presents the baby Jesus with a bowl of grapes and wheat.  Mary cradles Jesus in one arm and touches a sheaf of wheat with her right hand.  Her face is gentle and her expression seems one of gratitude and bewilderment as she looks at the gift.  Jesus has an expression of understanding beyond his age and a hand raised in blessing.  The scene is heartbreaking.  The angel and Jesus know that the grapes and wheat will be transformed to the wine and bread that will become his Last Supper.  Both Jesus and the fruits of the earth will grow and fulfill their destiny and become one.  But Mary doesn’t know.  She doesn’t know that her child is destined to be sacrificed to save mankind.  She doesn’t know that the two objects she tenderly touches represent the beginning and the end.  I hope she does not know. I am comforted that she doesn’t yet know.  But no one can save her from the pain that is to come.
          On March 18, 1990 the Gardner Museum changed.  The thief did not stand and enter Vermeer’s enchanted room or the boat on the Sea of Galilee.  He did not see.  He did not believe.  He cut, he took, he stole. 
          I have gone back to the Gardner Museum with my children and seen the empty frames on the wall.  I describe to them the ghosts I see.  My son’s eyes grow wide when he learns of the five million dollar reward and his face lights up with hope of riches as my eyes again fill with tears.  They will never know the museum as I did.  They have grown up without the paintings I believed were eternal; their legacy shadowed by the theft and empty frames.  But I bring them to the third floor.  We walk past the Titian to the Botticelli in the long gallery.  The thieves did not touch the Botticelli. 
          My daughter sketches in the courtyard filled with cascading nasturtiums while still, Jesus sleeps.  Somewhere in the world he sleeps. When will he wake and calm the storm?  Have you no faith? 


For more on the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum visit www.gardnermuseum.org

For more on the theft at the Gardner Museum see The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser or visit: www.theopencase.com

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