The little girl stared at the wall, and the wall stared back at her. She had stopped in her tracks before a painting of the Last Judgment in the Hotel-Dieu of Beaune in Burgundy. Christ and an array of saints and mortals gazed at her with grave, intelligent, human faces. The Archangel Michael gave her a particularly penetrating and inquiring look.
She held their gaze unflinchingly. The Guide Bleu said this painting by Roger van der Weyden is one of the greatest two masterpieces of 15th century Flemish art. The 7-year-old had not read the guide book, but she already sensed this was something special. A torrent of questions flowed out to her mother standing by her.
Why was there a lily, what was the sword for, and why were angels blowing trumpets? Why are the people who are climbing out of graves on their way to heaven and hell all naked? And why does one character have a bright red face? Why indeed? The mother calmly answered each question, but before long the religious symbolism got beyond her.
Then a shape appeared from the gloom at the little girl’s elbow. It was the guardian. Usually, such people look bored out of their minds, their only concern being whether some nutcase would leap at the painting and slash it. But like the little girl, this woman knew she was in the presence of greatness. The long hours she had to spend in that room she evidently treated as a privilege. A means of enrichment that she was now ready to share.
As she got into her swing, adults crowded round her too, jolted out of their jaded half-interest. She was aware of the growing audience, but she told everything as a story for her chosen 7-year-old. It was not her job to give lectures. She just decided to do it. She was never flummoxed as the questions flowed on. I wanted to thank her, but she and her little companion didn’t want to finish.
As I walked away, I realised this little girl’s life was made. She was going to confidently access knowledge, human kindness, spirituality and morality. Instinctively, she understood all this was gathered in the luminous masterpiece of reds, yellows, browns and inspirational human countenances.
I admired her parents for treating her childish questions with respect, worthy of serious answers accessible to her mind and soul. For leading her to the picture, not as a tourist curiosity, but to give her the opportunity to confront the highest level of humanity.
I was moved by the guardian, who had opened her own spirit to the treasure before her, had spotted the one person who could most benefit from her insights, and persisted until the job was thoroughly done.
I understood that the world probably never will subside into a morass of crass materialism and mutual destruction. This 7-year-old will see to it.