Way back in 1982, I traveled through Europe for months, which was an experience of a lifetime, the history buff that I am...Things that I had wondered about in pictures and books when I was a kid, I finally saw them in person.
For example, when I was around ten, my dad and I would still go to the barber shop together to get our haircuts. There was a poster on the wall at Phil's, it was the Matterhorn, a very steep and majestic looking mountain in faraway Switzerland... I knew about the one at Disneyland, but no, this was the real one...and there was a small town in the foreground in that poster. I wondered what the people were like there, to live in the shadow of such a monumental thing...by the looks of the poster, I imagined the people leading donkey carts, milking cows, while blowing their long Alpenhorns from valley to valley, like in the opening notes of 'The Sound of Music'.
Images like that poster would drive my imagination...another one was Stonehenge, a neolithic circle of stones in southern England, and yet another was the Sistene Chapel, where Michelangelo painted the ceiling...on his back on scaffolding for 4 years...the Pope would ask him, "When will this be done?"
He would answer, "When I am finished."
Yet another one was Neuschwanstein Castle, in the hills of southern Germany. It's a fairy-tale looking castle that was the inspiration for the one in, yes again, Disneyland...Going on a tour through the castle, which was built by an eccentric King Ludwig, each room had a different theme. One room was done up like a medieval castle, another like a middle-eastern casbah. It was almost like the Disneyland of its day, or Las Vegas in all its make-believe surroundings. But this was all built 300 years ago. How astonishing that all must have been way back then, but even more amazing is that here we were...still gazing around. I wonder if whoever built that castle knew it would be admired by people, 300 years later.
When I visited Sainte Chappelle in Paris I was astonished. The walls of the entire cathedral were covered in stained glass. When the afternoon sun came through the walls, the interior glowed as if from within. The intricate details of the windows must have taken years to create, slowly, painstakingly, and with an obvious care and dedication. I stared at each window for what must have been hours...and, being a budding artist myself, I wondered what it must have been like to be there, creating these.
But of all the things that I saw when I was over there, even among all the art galleries, it was the stone carvings on the walls at Salisbury Cathedral. In one of the rooms, there are depictions of the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood, Noah's Ark, Tower of Babel, Abraham, Moses, and on and on along the walls. The carved reliefs were all in stone, but they were fluid, flowing pictures full of movement and life. And it was all done by one person...no one knows who...way back in the 1200's. It was beyond anything I'd ever seen, first-hand, and nothing has inspired me as much since. The artist is long gone and forgotten, but here his work remains. As if he was still saying, "This is who I am, and this is what I did."
I never made it to the caves at Lasceaux, where cave paintings go back 20,000 years. But there's a bear skull sitting on a rock, like an altar, and among all the depictions of bears and mammoths on the cave walls, there's a single handprint. Before there was writing, or even language as we know it, 20,000 years ago someone put their hand on the wall and said, "I was here, this is my mark."
Since then, I've found myself moved by other sights. Some made long ago, and some only recently. I'm moved by humanity's desire to make these things, as if to deny the harshness of the rest of the world that must be daily endured...In every palace and every work of art, men and women have given great thought, effort, and care in creating them. Because they hope, I think, that sometimes against all evidence, their lives have a special meaning and in their talent lies a purpose larger than themselves.