Last week, the Words of Conversion thread attracted the attention of an Evangelical reader called Barto, who chastised me for esteeming Dante and the Chartres cathedral instead of the Gospel. Just now, reader DS posted this great comment on that thread:
For me, the most critical point among many points on my long and tortuous road to salvation was when I stood in front of Rodin’s Gates of Hell in Paris 25 years ago, almost to the date.
I was living a life of excess that is typical of college students abroad, but I thought I was sinless. Not perfect, but surely not much worse than most of my friends. And not, you know, “a sinner.” That day in Paris, I was hungover, in addition to being sick with a virus and physically exhausted, having slept with, without actually getting any sleep.
After sending her to the train station, I wandered into the Rodin Museum, whose sculpture garden was empty on that blustery winter morning, except for me and Rodin’s works. I knew The Thinker and the The Kiss and a few other pieces, but I’d never even heard of the Gates of Hell. The title caught my eye, so I stopped.
I stood there trying to figure it out, starting with “Hey, there’s a mini-Thinker in there, and look, The Kiss, too! Neat!” and ending 30 minutes or an hour later with something like “God have mercy on me, the sinner.”
The critical “Lord Jesus Christ, son of” part didn’t come until a few years later, after more twists and turns, but I don’t think I’d have gotten there without the experience with the masterpiece.
Barto will be happy to know that I attend an evangelical church, despite my disagreement with his expression of his viewpoint. I am not worshiping art, or Rodin, just as Rod is not worshiping the cathedral at Chartres or its builders. We were gobsmacked by the respective works of art, and that inspiration led us to further inquiry.
C.S. Lewis said something along the lines of “We don’t need more little books about Christianity. We need Christians to write books about other subjects, informed by their Christianity.” So our lives and our work don’t need to be a 24/7 recitation of the soundbite that Barto and my fellow evangelicals call “the Gospel.”
I’ve seen Camille Claudel, so Rodin is not high on my list of the righteous. (From the same movie, Isabelle Adjani is on my list, but that’s a very different list, and laminated.) But the flawed Rodin got me there. Here. Despite myself. And Dante, whose Commedia hinges upon his love for another man’s wife, had his issues. But he got people there.
You may not be aware of this, reader, but Rodin’s Gates of Hell is inspired by Dante’s Inferno. “The Thinker” is thought to be Dante (that figure was first called “The Poet”); “The Kiss” depicts Paolo and Francesca from Canto V.