Paul Cézanne: Old Woman with a Rosary
The poet Joachim Gasquett tells us that this is a portrait of an ex-nun, who lost her faith and "escaped" from her convent. Gasquett found her wandering aimlessly and provided shelter for her. In Cézanne's portrait, she looks back upon a life that must have had significant pain and inner torment. And as she looks forward, she knows the days remaining to her are dwindling rapidly. So it is appropriate that the colors are somber.
But when you look at this woman, do you feel that all is regret and disillusionment? I don't. Her face and posture show that she is deep in contemplation, but not in despair. And that raised eyebrow indicates a glimmer of hope. Her face seems to glow with it.
The only other bright spot in the painting is her hands, where we see the rosary and understand that she has returned to the sustaining faith that first brought her to the convent. Even if you are not Catholic, do you not rejoice to know that she has turned back to Christ, who offers her hope at the end of her life, despite all of her brokenness?
This portrait may also have been an expression of hope to the artist, who became a devout Christian late in his life. I don't think Cézanne had to interview this woman extensively to know just the right posture to use for the portrait, or the precise expression for her face. He knew from inside his own heart what it means when despair of the past meets with the startling recognition of hope in spite of it all. In some respects, this is a self-portrait.
Remarkably, this painting was nearly lost. Some time after Cézanne's death, it was found on a floor, with a pipe dripping water onto it. But the painting was rescued and today hangs in one of the world's greatest art museums.
So this one painting embodies three separate stories with a single theme: redemption. The painting was mercifully redeemed from destruction by someone who valued it. Cézanne himself was redeemed when he became a Christian, and has shown us his own redemption in the portrait of this woman. And of course, the old woman is shown in the very moment of redemption, when her past and her future offer nothing but despair, yet she discovers hope in the revival of the faith she had once rejected.
Redemption is also the primary theme of the Bible. In Genesis, God created us in love and gave us free will that we used to reject Him. The rest of the Bible is the story of God's attempts to bring us back into relationship with Him, until He finally does so for all who will accept it by the death and resurrection of His Son. In Jesus, God takes each of our broken, futile lives and transforms them into lives with meaning and hope for eternal glory.
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
- Isaiah 43:1(b) (NIV)
So if you are at all inspired by this painting, it may well be that it embodies a fourth story of redemption: your own. If you are a Christian, the response of your heart to this painting may remind you of the miracle of your transformation from a lost soul into a child of God. I pray that it may be a blessing to you in that way. If you are not a Christian, perhaps your heart is prompting you to consider your own past and future, and like the old woman, to turn to a faith that will give you hope. It is my prayer that you will find this hope.
And there may be yet another story of redemption. The church once embraced art enthusiastically, but in recent centuries has largely abandoned it to the secular sphere. The above example shows how Art to Heart hopes to redeem art as a means for conveying the glory of the Gospel.