In the Amsterdam History Museum the last time I was there, I came upon a particularly lovely painting of a man with a cow. It is a fragment left from a much larger painting, now lost. There’s a benevolent looking man, bending toward a cow that looks equally benevolent. Man and animal are painted with exquisite detail. If anything, the animal is painted in clearer focus. The animal gazes outward toward the viewer, with calm intelligence. The man is intent on something below and beyond the frame: very likely a baby sleeping in a manger. The scene is one of overwhelming tenderness and reverence.
The painting, about 3 by 4 feet, is identified as a fragment of a much larger piece, forever lost. The original work was part of a large altarpiece; the artist is unknown. The altarpiece was broken up during religious rioting in the 16th century. Even peaceful, tolerant Holland did not escape the religious strife that tore through all of Europe in past centuries.
Some museums allow photos; some do not. I am always grateful when I can take a quick photo of a piece of art that speaks to me. I never intend to sell my photo, enlarge it, or frame it. I’d buy a print if I wanted something to hang on a wall. Instead, my photo preserves a travel memory: an encounter with a piece of art that made me slow down during a long day of sightseeing. It’s a memory of time I took out of fast-moving everyday life to ponder the timeless moments of beauty and peace that great art creates.
I’m off to Amsterdam again. I’ll be seeking out this painting, as an old friend.