A few years ago, well maybe almost a hundred years if you want to be accurate, I was wandering through the Vatican on a Saturday morning. This was one of my former lives, but I recall it like yesterday and I know that you probably think all that former life stuff is nonsense. But let me continue anyway.
About halfway through my journey through the Pope’s house, I entered the Sistine Chapel. Now, back then, there were fewer visitors and I found myself almost alone in the small chapel as I stood transfixed by the splendor and stared up at the ceiling. Of course, I was drawn to the hand of God and those two fingers almost touching. I wondered why, if that was the creation of Adam, why he popped out so damn old and not as a child… a grown man touched by the finger of God instead of a baby Adam. Oh well, so Adam just popped out fully grown!
But I digress. As I was staring at the ceiling I happened to bump into another man who was standing beside me, also gazing upward and oblivious to everything else about him.
“Excuse me,” I said and turned towards the fellow, a striking young man with a swatch of hair falling over his forehead.
He smiled at me, nodding and responded in English with a Spanish accent. “No, my friend. We are both transfixed by the work of this sixteenth century painter.”
“How magnificent it is…” I said, “and how proud Michelangelo must have been to be such a great painter and acknowledged by the Pope and all the great painters of his age.”
The Spaniard looked at me, raising his eyebrows. “Yes. Yes, he was good, but I have seen better.” The man elevated his chin and his gaze moved to another area of the room.
Had I in some way insulted him? I mean, we were talking about Michelangelo, not Joe Schmo. As I walked around the small room, again gazing at the walls and the ceiling I happened again to bump into him and then stopped and stared into his eyes. He was trying not to show his displeasure and discomfort as I again excused myself.
“Again, I have interrupted your viewing, sir. When we leave the Vatican, I would very much like to offer you a cappuccino and croissant at the cafe across from the piazza.” I extended a hand and told him my name.
He glanced down at my extended fingers and reached out his own index finger and touched my index finger, smiling. “I am Pablo Ruiz Picasso. I also paint. Thank you for the invitation but I have other appointments to make.”
“Well, then. It has been a brief pleasure sir,” I responded. “Perhaps someday I’ll see your works also.”
He withdrew his hand and turning away said, “Perhaps, you will.” That was the last I saw of him. This should have taught me a lesson which I could carry from that embodiment to my next life which began in the midcentury in another place and to other parents, my next father being a surgeon and my mother a painter and sculptor. My father was famous as a surgeon in the small city in which we lived but never achieved the fame of Hippocrates, Vesalius, the Mayo brothers or William Osler. He was just a good run of the mill surgeon. Likewise, my mother was a fine artist and in a different city or time or place she might have achieved the fame of the famous artists of the time. But she gave pleasure to many through her work even though she was not a Rembrandt, or Michelangelo or, yes Picasso.
From my experience in that past life I learned never to assume that the one next to you isn’t the embodiment of all the greatness of that one who is revered and famous. In that museum of the Vatican, I looked at the ceiling and extolled Michelangelo to my sudden new acquaintance without realizing that he was looking at the master’s artwork and seeing a reflection of himself and his ability in the hand of the master. I had diminished him in some way without even knowing it. A genius is never extolled in his own home, and a creative person only reacts to the compliments about others by thinking, “but what about me?” The old “chopped liver” bit, although I don’t know why chopped liver was the victim!
I have also been thinking about some famous people whose artwork was overshadowed by other aspects of their lives. I think about William Blake who is remembered primarily for his poetry but whose fantastic artwork can and should stand on its own merits. We rarely hear him referred to as Blake, the artist. And similarly, that most successful of children’s writers, who sold more books than almost anyone else in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Beatrix Potter. We regale in her success with the adventures of Peter Rabbit and overlook the fact that her delightful drawings were probably seen and appreciated and loved by more people worldwide than Michelangelo, Leonardo and, yes, Picasso.
I have the opportunity to see, work with and interact with a person who embodies so many attributes that I often fail to see the forest for the trees. If I were to praise her painting, I would be diminishing her sculpture, likewise her writing and most poignantly the ability to save the lives of those women she has rescued from the morass of drug addiction and alcoholism. If I were to extol the greatness of Betty Ford or Beatrix Potter or Giacometti in her presence she might well compare and contrast in her mind the deeds of those famous named individuals. But she should know that it in no way diminishes her. The world is a greater place because of her, no less than the contributions of the Picassos, Michelangelos and Leonardos.