Falling in Love in a Museum

Image courtesy Art Renewal Center

This is a painting that made a huge impact on me when I was a Freshman at Oberlin College in 1970. It's by Hendrick Terbruggen of St. Sebastian having these terrible arrows removed from his body. It was painted way back in 1625.

It hung in the College's Allen Memorial Art Museum. At the time I foolishly believed all colleges had such amenities as great master paintings. It was a small campus and I was able to visit the museum a lot, sometimes daily, and most often it was mine alone. The quiet was delicious.

What struck me about the painting is that a scene that could only be described as ghastly was painted with such delicacy and an overall serenity. The woman reaching for the arrow looks like she has sweet music playing in her head. Strangely I found the painting reassuring. While I'd had no arrows piercing me recently, I had had some genuinely troubling years in high school. Here was St. Sebastian being treated with such unbelievable tenderness. I was sure he appreciated it a lot. Terbruggen painted this thing lovingly.

I think Terbruggen's art lay in his amazing ability to elegantly compose solid forms and natural light in ways that mysteriously affect our emotions. I knew the impact this painting was having on me and under its spell I decided I to learn more about this elusive business called art.

One other thing helped. Allen Art Museum had these marvelous sky lights in its galleries back then. I'd revel in how the light would change minute to minute, subtly altering the mood of the paintings on the walls. Sadly the skylights were covered over years later, perhaps in some cost-cutting move. I hope they'll one day be re-opened.

The gallery was a private refuge for me and I wish I could somehow thank the people responsible for building the collection. It gave me a big shove into dropping my intended Sociology major in favor of picking up the paintbrush.


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