Saturday, April 18, 2009

Society for the Study of Theology and Amsterdam

I have been absent from the blogosphere for a couple months, and it feels good to be back. I am especially excited to share my recent trip to the Society for the Study of Theology Conference in The Netherlands. Sadly, I do not have any pictures from the conference itself. It was tempting to snap some pictures of all the 'famous' theologians who were there, but I held back. I didn't even ask for an autograph.

The conference was a lot of fun, and I met some great folks. Every night there was 'bar time,' which was a great opportunity to meet people and to discuss theology without the consequence of anyone actually remembering what you said.

I attended more papers than I have fingers to count. There were times when I felt a bit overloaded with theology. Listening to papers can actually be exhausting after awhile. A number of my friends from St Andrews offered papers at the conference, and they were all, of course, excellent. I think there were 8 (2 profs and 6 phds) of us from St Andrews total: strength in numbers. I also had the opportunity to give a paper at the conference on the relationship between creativity and vulnerability. This was a much more intimidating venue than Durham.

After the conference, some St Andrews friends (David and Joy Sonju, Shawn and Sarah Bawulski) and I did a bit of sight seeing in The Netherlands. Our first stop was the beautiful town of Utrecht (I believe this is the 'Utrecht' of 'Utrecht Art Supplies'). We visited its remarkable medieval cathedral and tower. Below is a view through the passageway underneath the tower looking towards the cathedral.

Yes, there is an accordion player. As we walked through this vaulted tunnel, I felt, just for a moment, that I had discovered a secret portal into 'movieland.' The whole scene was literally dripping with nostalgia. All that perfection required was a little dancing monkey.

The Utrecht cathedral was large and impressive. It was filled with contemporary art commissions. I took a number of pictures of old and new art, but this painting was my favorite.

It is titled 'The Director.' I wish I could remember who the painter is and when it was painted. A bit of observation reveals that this director is, in fact, Christ. We recognize that it is Jesus by the wounds in his hands and feet, the lamb on the floor, and the crossbeams of the window. The director's gaze is emphatically aimed at us, who, in looking at the painting, become incorporated within the work of art as we find that we are the ones who are being directed. It is a simple, poignant, and direct image that carefully balances a profound truth about the universe with a rather mundane human scene.

After going to the cathedral, we visited the tower. I can't remember how many steps we climbed to get to the top, but it was a lot. The view was worth it.
Bit of trivia: the tower in Utrecht at one time housed the highest (in terms of elevation) bar in The Netherlands. One of the original tower guards, who lived in the tower, got a little lonely and decided to open a bar inside the tower. Today, sadly, the tower is a museum for tourists and there is no working bar.

Below is a picture from the tower looking at the cathedral. If you have seen a cathedral before you might notice something is missing. Look carefully...
Its the nave! The cathedral does not have a nave! What you can see is the transept and the portion of the cathedral that houses the altar. In the sixteenth century a nave was built for the cathedral to connect what you see in this picture to the tower. In its glory days, you would walk under the tower and into the cathedral, but now there is a square that separates the tower from the cathedral. What happened, you ask? Well, by the time they got around to building the nave, the protestant reformation had happened, and people weren't as keen on funding large church building projects. So they built the nave, but decided to leave out what seemed, at the time, to be a superfluous element: the flying buttresses! One fateful evening, a large storm blew through Utrecht and knocked down the nave. The rubble remained there for 150 years until it was finally removed and replaced with a very nice square.

After Utrecht, we went to Amsterdam. Below is a picture that I took of the Rijksmuseum from the large park in the museum quarter.
The Rijksmuseum houses a remarkable collection of 16th century Dutch paintings. This is the primary reason, even more than the conference, that I wanted to go to The Netherlands. All the big names were there: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Steen, Frans Hals and more. They have an excellent collection of Dutch Genre Painting (my personal favorite). In short, this is like the mecca of my painting world (more than the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Tate, or the MOMA). The Rembrandts in particular were stunning. Just getting to see 'The Nightwatch' (which is gigantic) made it worth it.

After the Rijksmuseum, I went to the Van Gogh Museum. As art museums go, this was one of the best I had ever been to. I actually came away feeling as though I had learned a lot about Van Gogh and his paintings. See his work in person is a must. The prints don't cut. The man could lay paint on the canvas like nobody else (some of his paintings had to be close to an inch thick). His sense of color was absolutely mind boggling, especially to someone who has never been good at utilizing color in paintings. And Starry Night lives up to the hype.
Walking through the two museums was an absolute privilege. The experience of seeing these paintings in person will stay with me a long time: at least until I get back to Amsterdam.

I also went to the Anne Frank house. This was exceedingly powerful. It had been awhile since I had really thought about the Holocaust, and certainly a long time since I had been confronted with the many disturbing images and stories. I had forgotten the horror of it, and I was affected in new ways by this exhibit. It is hard to say much more, or really anything at all, after walking through the Anne Frank house.

And, of course, Amsterdam would not be complete without tulips and canals. So, I leave you with these two photographs.

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