I went to visit an old friend on Wednesday. Actually two old friends. One I've known for over 40 years, the other I first encountered 30 years ago. My friend of 40 years shared a coffee, then lunch, then much talking about the things that matter and some things that don't. That friendship has settled into an unspoken but mutually understood trust that enables us to speak with freedom not merely in confidence, but in the confidence that what is said is heard, listened to and attended to.
The second old friend now resides in a setting that does justice to its beauty, power and commanding presence. Salvador Dali's Christ of St John of the Cross needs neither accolade nor commendation. It is a masterpiece. That it excites argument and admiration, creates controversy while depicting reconciliation, and draws you into the spiritual realities of Christian faith while resisting facile devotional reductionism, simply confirms its status as on of the greatest paintings of the 20th Century.
It also excited the hostility of someone with a knife who ripped and scarred it half a century ago, and subsequently inspired the restorers to work with painstaking patience to repair it. Which brings me to one of those epiphany moments that perhaps it takes the context of Kelvingrove Art Gallery, and the love Glasgow folk have for their art collection, and this particular painting.
I am sitting on the bench and all but paddling in the sea shallows at the edge of the painting. In came two Glasgow punters, one who had never seen the painting before and one who thought it was a "braw picture". They stood up close and the experienced art guide who had seen it "hunners o' times" helped his pal to stand at just the right angle, in line with the lights, and pointed out the L shaped scar, barely visible, but there to be seen if you knew where to look. They talked for a while describing in Glaswegian discourse the perpetrator of the damage, and spoke with wondering gratitude (but in that same Galswegian discourse) of those who "sorted it". Then they went away. At no time did they stand and look at the painting as it is. Having inspected the damage and the repair, away they went. I was offended for my friend, and should have gone and asked them to come and meet the masterpiece properly. I'm glad I didn't.
A few minutes later as I walked out of that small place of peace and prayer that is the right setting for this painting, there the two of them were, sitting there and taking in the visual presentation of the history of the painting and how it came to be in Kelvingrove, and how £8,200 was an enormous amount of money 60 years ago, and how one man's vision and persistence resulted in Glasgow owning a work of art that is now all but priceless. It was just ending, and they got up and went back in to the painting. And I smiled a deep inner smile - now they were going to meet my friend properly, having done their background research.
Several times I've taken a class to look at this painting - online just doesn't work. They go having discussed it in class, looked at the background, and with some idea of what to look for. What they don't have an idea of, is what it will be like to stand before this astonishing artistic statement - Dali's professed aim to paint a beautiful Christ of the Cross. Then we go walkabout, in company or alone, and meet some time later for round the coffee table discussion in the cafe downstairs. Some of my most rewarding and moving experiences of teaching and learning (and both are so intermingled we are all learner / teachers) have taken place round such a table, having encountered Dali's masterpiece. And the irony is, in achieving his aim, an act of vandalism has left a scar that is still visible if you know where to look. And in that irony is one of the great theological mysteries, of created beauty, damaged and restored, having the power to subdue our worst and renew our best.