Life Imitates Art in the Metropolitan Museum

Here’s the “art imitates life” connection to the post below about the Yeats poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” which was brought to mind by the new movie, No Country for Old Men. If you didn’t see that post, you might want to scroll down and read it before coming back to this one.

 On this trip to New York we had far too little time in the always astonishing Metropolitan Museum, perhaps the only glitch in an otherwise perfect vacation.  It was already almost 5 PM and raining pretty hard, which we knew would make the trip back downtown much slower.We had theater tickets and wanted to have dinner before the play.

So, knowing I only had about an hour,  I wandered through some of the medieval galleries closest to the entrance, looking at gigantic tapestries, suits of armor and dozens of  intricately wrought urns,  reliquaries, statues and other artifacts of the long-vanished Age of Faith. So many of these items are so well-preserved that you blink upon reading their dates–1340, early 1400s, circa 1450–because some look as if they’d been created a month ago.

If you’ve been to the Met you know that several of these large central galleries are dimly lit;  that’s both for preservation and to lend an air of authenticity, and indeed, it’s not hard to imagine that you’re a medieval pilgrim standing in the awe-inspiring gloom of a cathedral filled with  great works of devotion, even though you’re wearing a Timex sport watch and a Knicks t-shirt.

I sat down on a bench in front of a tapestry depicting a battle from one of the Crusades. After a moment I became aware of a young couple–they may have been Asian, I wasn’t sure– standing about 20 feet away between a couple of statues. They were embracing and kissing, really kissing, the kind of kissing that, had it been done outside on Fifth Avenue, would have brought calls of “Hey, buddy, get a room!” But here they were in the partial darkness near a ghost-white statue of Mary holding the baby Jesus, lost in each other.

And that’s when the Yeats lines came to mind: “The young in one another’s arms. . . caught in that sensual music all neglect/monuments of unageing intellect.” Around them were myriad works of genius and hope preserved in one of the Western world’s great storehouses of the past–but right that moment, what mattered was love and passion. Monuments of unageing intellect could wait until another day, perhaps a day when they were much older and found themselves “fastened to a dying animal.”

  Somehow it all seemed to work together– the art and the life, the past and the present, the flesh and the soul, the old and the young–as perhaps from some grander perspective it does.

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