Silent Art

This post was written by Benjamin Jacob, HC Student Fellow

Last summer, my family embarked on a quest to see several paintings by Johannes Vermeer that we had not yet seen. Led by my intrepid mother, we traveled to museums in Frankfurt, Berlin, and Dresden specifically to see these Dutch gems.  Unfortunately for our purposes, we were disappointed at each turn.  The Vermeers, we discovered too late, were on loan for a special exhibit in Paris, Dublin, and then at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

So, while I was in Baltimore last week and the opportunity came for me to finally see these works, I jumped at the chance. I was so excited! I busily made my preparations. How would I get there? How much time would I have? Could I afford to miss my previous engagements? As I walked into the museum, these thoughts and cares were still front and center.  I barged into the museum without pondering or pause. At that moment, I was focused on the accomplishment of a goal, nothing else. With months of anticipation and the stress of a harried journey into the city swirling in my head, I went into the exhibit. 

The change—and the reprimand—came slowly.  The rooms were dimly lit, except around the paintings.  The hushed observers around me seemed to suggest that I still myself as well. My slow walk from painting to painting brought my previously rushing heartbeat down to a pensive murmur. And the paintings themselves—masterpieces of simple mystery—calmly invited me to reduce the velocity of my thoughts. I was gently rebuked for entering a space devoted to the principles of stillness and tranquility with such a rush. I meekly accepted the rebuke and devoted my attention to the paintings. 

I peered into the rooms shown in the paintings and felt their comfortable serenity. I saw the gentle fold of a tablecloth. I noticed the tiles, etched with individual scenes, at the base of a wall. I followed the gaze of a girl as she looked out a window. As I focused on these paintings, I felt a shift in my soul. The stillness of those works gently washed over me like cool water. I breathed slowly.

In the silence of those paintings, I was allowed to listen to my inner noise. Thoughts about my life came forward now that the chaotic thoughts of daily living had been chased away.  These Dutch women with letters and scales and pearl earrings cleared a space for me. They invited me into their quiet, clean houses to sit for a while.  The focus that I offered them returned to me as a deep peace, an inner stillness that I didn’t know I needed until I felt it. I had entered the exhibit with a busy, worried spirit, but I walked out with a calmed, invigorated soul. 

Does art always have to say something? Much of my time as a student of the humanities has centered on understanding what the author or work says. But is there a space for art to be silent? My experience with the Vermeers in the National Gallery showed me a different way that art behaves in our world. Art can listen to us. I like the idea that “silence is for bumping into yourself”1 and I believe that art, like nature, good friends, and prayer, can facilitate that reunion of the self. Unexpectedly, I found a listening ear inside those 17th-century Dutch images.  I learned that art can give us a space to exist for a while rather than only telling us how to exist or what our existence means. 

As we hurtle to the end of another semester and another year of our lives, I hope that we can find both the art and the time necessary to be still and to be at peace. I believe we increasingly misplace beneficial silence in our post-modern existence, but art can bring this silence and stillness to us, if we allow it.  Like those peaceful women in Vermeer’s paintings, we can be about our work in peace—intensely focused, yet calm and assured in the beauty of our living.

References and Further Reading

  1. O’Rouke, Meghan. “Lessons in Stillness from One of the Quietest Places on Earth” November 8, 2017. New York Times Magazine.
  2. Image by Johannes Vermeer, Woman in Yellow

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