Crowded Reverence

Recently, I stood in the lobby of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I peeled a little sticker from my ticket and pressed it into the fibers of my shirt, praying for adhesion lest I be ushered from the place. People thronged all around, some moving with purpose and others floating as mesmerized. I floated.

Never in my life had I been in a museum with so many other people in such a concentrated area. Anxiety twisted my gut. I let my husband’s warm hand on my midback guide me toward Ancient Egypt. Padded rails lined one hallway, and we moved there to formulate a plan for devouring the museum.

The museum-goers did not hush as we toured Egypt, whispered secrets to a Sphinx, or wandered into a display of Catholic fashion. People kept their voices moderate, their steps mostly brisk. Room upon room, artifacts sat in silent reverie of their lost past and humans built new rooms in our brains to store it all. One thing that never left: the noise. Shuffling, muttering, instructing. Children helping each other fill out worksheets and the scraping of pencils across paper. The squeak of a stroller wheel. The scootch of a walker and ruffle of paper. And always, always the plodding.

Until.

Until we passed into the rich medium blue entry to the Delacroix exhibit, the first of its kind in North America. Here we stood in a knot that tightened and loosened as newcomers began to read the walls and others left us. Here we entered the realm of the sacrosanct.

My husband and I wandered the exhibit separately. I held back my hands from testing the texture of Delacroix’s oils. Jesus’ toenail–was it truly all paint? This wave? That cloth?

After a few minutes, the quiet I had so longed for in other rooms grew intense. Among Delacroix’s sketches, roughs, retries, and masterpieces, no one spoke out. The horde of visitors came to a joint contract that required solemnity and reserve among these strokes.

A thin whisper rose occasionally but evaporated. People stepped lightly, sat heavily, and contemplated. I witnessed the paintings in awe. Once in a while I would shake my head, not believing the thing right before my eyes. Then I’d look around and see others doing the same. At first stepping far back, then leaning in as closely as they dared, then shaking their heads. How? How did this man do these things?

At long last, sated and contented, I left the cool walls of Delacroix with my husband. Not through a door, only a brief passageway. Into the now-bizarre cacophony of the Met. The rare reverent silence behind us, we let go and rejoined the crowd.

Note: I took few pictures inside the exhibit, and I can’t bring myself to think of them as mine to share. If you are in New York and at all able, go see him for yourself.

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