Monk by the Sea

Take a look at this painting:

It’s called Monk by the Sea, and I loved it from the first time I saw it during a college art history class.  It flashed up on the projection screen during a dark, sleep-inducing class.  The sky was a luminous mix of rainy day color, not flat like the photo version (I worked in the art history slide library, so I’m biased towards the beauty of slides instead of digital images).  I was instantly there on the cold, grey shore, although not in my monk robes, since I don’t fit the qualifications for that job.  It was beautiful and awe-inspiring and a little bit scary.  I was looking out at something that had the power to swallow me whole in an instant.

That’s what life is a lot of the time, isn’t it?  You don’t figure out the answers as you get older, you just know the shore better.  You get braver, and you know which spots will hold and which ones won’t.  There’s always that cliff to look over, and there’s always that immense presence around you.  The monk isn’t really alone.  He’s surrounded by the sky, and it seems more alive than he does in a lot of ways.  He’s not even a super impressive-sized speck on the shore, but you notice the sky.  It’s full and rich and in motion.

Today, I’m taking comfort in being that small monk on the shore.  If I’m that small (and I am), it makes God so much bigger than I try to make him.  He has to be in control of everything, since it’s obvious that I couldn’t be in control even if I tried.  I could only hold a few grains of sand together, and he can hold the whole world together.  I’m so glad.

And that, dear friends, is exactly what I think of when I see that painting.  The official art history discussion of it talks about the artist, Caspar David Friedrich, and his role in German Romanticism.  It covers the use of lines that lead out of the painting, etc.  But basically, replace my use of the word “God” with the word “universe,” and this is exactly what I’m supposed to feel when I see the painting.  Art is pretty powerful stuff.

Also, I like the name Friedrich.  Even though I know it isn’t pronounced like “fried rich,” I think of a really obnoxious rich man being fried in batter.  In my imagination, it isn’t painful for him, just funny for me.

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2 thoughts on “Monk by the Sea

  1. what a terrific post. That is a delightful painting, and it reminds me of an ancient Ireland where a monk would look out to a foggy sea and contemplate leaving home to spread the gospel. Have you ever read the Saga of St. Brendan?

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