Northwest Patron Molly Weiner is a rising senior at the University of Notre Dame, double majoring in Theology & Italian with a minor in Art History. Molly is currently a Patron’s office intern at the Vatican.
The Art of Humility
My dear friends of the Northwest Chapter, there are so many things that I would like to tell you about my time thus far as an intern for the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums. I have learned so many valuable lessons both about the nature of this working environment and the Museums, but the one thing that keeps coming into my head to express to you all is something rather peculiar – it’s that of humility.
With the territory of volunteering in the Patron’s office comes the benefit of being able to pass through some of the Catholic Church’s most revered and exclusive areas. An average day, could include a visit to an empty Sistine Chapel, a pass through the Sala Ducale and Sala Regia, and of course, an afternoon at the office in the Apostolic Palace. Providentially, due to an unworthy blessing, this situation has become one of normalcy during my Roman summer.
Growing up in Montana, the land of more cows than people, I had always dreamed of, but never expected to be, working in the center of the Roman Catholic Church surrounded by Her most precious and acclaimed pieces of sacred art. It can be tempting to think that I made it here by my sole efforts. However, in reality, I know that this opportunity is largely based off of the support of my parents, friends, educators, and many more. Once I came to this realization, I able to see every one of these now ‘ordinary’ moments in an extraordinary and thankful light. Still, due to the nature of my work at the office, it would be absurd not to speak on what has been admittedly the most silently vocal teacher of humility – the art, itself.
This humbling power of art of which I am referring can be best encapsulated in these words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “A work of beauty is pure gratuity; it calls us to freedom and draws us away from selfishness.” The first of these points is of particular importance to lovers of the Vatican Museums. For, we, as visitors, are fortunate enough that Popes have granted us the ability to view and appreciate their personal collection of marvelous artwork. Art and the beauty come to us more as a privilege than a right. For each glimpse upon a piece of art is an acknowledgment of the God-given talent of the artist and the generosity of the owner. It therefore demands little or no effort of our own to exist. Essentially, it is a humble acknowledgement of how another’s selflessness can benefit our own lives and, in this way, acts as a facilitator of virtue.
Not only does art instill gratefulness for our neighbor’s contributions, but it also teaches the proper relationship of each person to the world. When addressing the topic of humility, it is important to remember these words of C.S. Lewis, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”Essentially, it encompasses the cultivation of a just order of ourselves in regards to the rest of humanity. Art transmits this aspect of humility in a twofold way, both a mode of individual intimacy and a glimpse into the eternal. Since sacred art is supposed to point us toward God, it would only be natural that it would mimic the same intimacy and vastness of the divine.
A reflection on the Sistine Chapel provides a perfect way of explaining these two modes at work. Typically, a person who first enters the Chapel is often overwhelmed by the complexity and detail of the ceiling. It usually bestows the feeling of vastness and eternity as one meditates upon the beauty and history of man’s salvation. However, art rarely has only one narrative. For in the center of the ceiling, the Creation of Adam expresses the second method – the one of individuality. Amidst this complexity and vastness, God meets his creation in a private and personal exchange. Man is not forgotten among the world, but loved within it. In total, the work perfectly utilizes this twofold lesson on humility. For humility is not meant to decrease one’s own worth, but to put it into correct perspective in relation to others and God. Moving from the world to one’s self in relation to others, provides the viewer with the proper perspective of themselves.
This lesson on humility is not limited to this particular work, but is present in every true work of art. It serves as a reflection on a given theme or event while simultaneously asking the question of how each person relates to it. Art provides the opportunity to gain proper perspective. It not only delights the eye, but it teaches and transforms us. Therefore, art is one of the strongest teachers of humility because it forces the viewer to think outside of himself, to something higher. For this reason, I will be forever grateful for my opportunity with the Patrons for shaping both my work experience and my character.