Encounter in Colmar (Parts I & II)
By Leon Kortenkamp - Belmont, California, USA - 18 February 2015
The old monastery, now museum, is freezing cold. A hint of smoke in the air suggests a fireplace somewhere, but nowhere in sight.
Normally, I travel to Europe in May, following the spring semester, after the cold months and before the onrush of tourists and the summer heat, but not this year. This year, two days before Christmas, my fiancée announced the end of our engagement. I asked for time to talk, to work things out, and she responded by taping a three-line note to the steering wheel of my car before running off with her theater director. Too distracted to function in the classroom, I took leave from the university and began my research a few months early.
The Isenheim Altarpiece is disassembled for exhibition. The huge two-sided hinged wings are positioned back to back on a row of pedestals, standing like banners in a procession down the center of the chapel nave.
The display aptly begins with the Nativity panel. Originally flanked by the hinged Annunciation and Resurrection wings, it is now featured on its own, a delight of detail and emotion. Musician angels celebrate the baby’s birth. Demons cower in the shadows, knowing that it’s all over for them.
As I move in for a closer look, a young woman rounds the edge of the panel. Thinking that I am alone in the chapel, her appearance gives me a start. Our eyes meet; she smiles faintly and quick-
ly turns her attention to the painting. She is a slight woman, dark hair and dark eyes, bundled up with a heavy coat, gloves, boots, and a long red and white striped scarf wound around her head and around her neck, one end hanging down her back and the other hanging in front, almost to the floor.
We pause for a time with the mother and child before moving on to view the next panel, St. Anthony’s travail in the desert. Grotesque demons torment him, pulling his hair and assailing him with a barrage of afflictions as he struggles to hold true to his rigors of prayer and contemplation.
Next is the dazzling Resurrection leaf. Jesus rises in a radiant burst of light. Displaying his wounds he floats weightlessly above the tomb. The soldiers, depicted in stunning color and detail, overcome by the awesome event, tumble to the ground.
Panel after panel, the young woman pauses as I move on, then I pause as she moves on. Turning, pausing, moving on, lingering behind, moving on together, turning and parting, coming back together we move around the pedestals and through the exhibition like slow motion dance partners in a Jane Austen movie.
At the Crucifixion, the last panel, we stand silently transfixed before the gruesome depiction of the bruised body extended on the cross, nailed hands gnarled in pain, head bowed in death. Mary Magdalene beneath the cross, raises her twisted hands in desperate grief, John the beloved disciple comforts the mother of Jesus, and John the Baptist, marvelously present, with a lamb at his feet and scriptures in hand, points and explains the cosmic Paschal meaning of the event.
It is our final panel together, and I want to connect the moment with the young woman. “Grunewald got it right,” I venture.
She says nothing in reply. What? No reply at all? Maybe she doesn’t understand English.
Then, “Jesus got it right, and Grunewald understood that,” she replies in perfect English. Her remark bares no edge, but is possessed with disarming authority.
I want to reply, but only glib classroom responses come to mind. My thoughts are in a muddle, and I come up with nothing. Then another voice, like a soft whisper. I glance over at the young woman. It isn’t she. The words are clear, “Believe in my love.” A jolt of mysterious sweet pain grips my chest, like a crust around my heart is cracking and falling away. The figure on the cross, bowed in death, begins to blur, and I am awash in a wave of idyllic calm. I step back slightly to conceal my tears from the young woman. She, with delicate reserve, blesses herself and disappears around the edge of the panel.
Wait, I want to call after her. Who are you? Where are you going? I want to talk to you about what just happened here. I round the panel; she is nowhere in sight. I search the next and the next, and suddenly, there she is, back at the Nativity. Back with the musician angels. Back with the baby. I join her, pretending to review the panel. She turns and walks toward the doorway leading to the next museum room. I’m sure she thinks I am following her, but I don’t care.
“I’m going out for a hot cup of coffee,” I call after her. “Would you like to join me?” The stone wall returns my invitation as an empty disconcerting echo.
Turning, she replies, “That’s very kind. But I want to see the rest of the museum.”
“I’m sure they’ll let you back in,” I persist. “I mean, if you would like to get out of the cold for a bit.”
“Yes…I suppose they will,” she answers with a knowing smile and a tug on her scarf.
Our footfalls echo down the long stone corridor in a varied stammering cadence. She walks with a slight limp, something I hadn’t noticed as we moved through the exhibition together.
“It’s only after you buy a ticket in the heated entry hall that you realize the rest of the museum is freezing cold,” I venture.
The young woman smiles and nods.
“Thank you for agreeing to step out for coffee with me.”
“Not at all,” she replies graciously. “You’re very kind. A hot cup of coffee seems like the perfect idea about now.”
“By the way, I’m Wally.”
“Chiara.” She removes her glove, offers her hand and a warm smile. “You’re American,” she guesses.
“Yes, California,” I answer. “You?”
“Really? I’m a student at UC Berkeley.” Her dark eyes dart quickly from side to side as she speaks; when they meet mine they are deeply engaging. Her smile is constant and warm.
“Small world,” I reply. I teach at USF, across the Bay.”
“What do you teach?”
“Art history,” I answer. “What are you studying at Berkeley?”
“Do you like teaching?” she asks, my question aside.
“Most of the time,” I answer. “What about you? What are you studying at Berkeley?”
“Linguistics. I’m on a doctoral program…but I took a semester off to come to France. What about you? Are you here on sabbatical?”
“Linguistics. Do I have to be careful what I say and how I say it?”
“Not at all,” she smiles. “I can’t wait to get into teaching. I’ll be a teaching assistant next semester. I know that I am going to love it.”
“Good for you,” I reply, stretching for artless sincerity. Her enthusiasm engenders a rush of regret about the mess I left back at the university.
“Are you here on sabbatical?” she asks again.
“Not exactly. I’m doing some research for a book.”
“And here we are in lovely Colmar in the dead of the winter,” she says with a soft chuckle.
“Right,” I answer flatly. “But the altarpiece is well worth the trip, don’t you think?”
“For sure. I’ve wanted to see it for years.”
“Can you imagine the community of sisters…in the 13th century…huddled together in that chapel…trying to be attentive to their prayers in the freezing cold?”
“Poor dears,” she replies.
As we find our way through the museum’s labyrinth of corridors and exhibition rooms back to the entry hall, our conversation wanders through the woes of graduate school to the allure of the Alsatian countryside and the great white wines of the region. She is charming. Strikes me as a little naïve, but then she must be nearly ten years younger than I am.
“This is better,” she says as we enter the heated entry hall. I nod, and she goes to the ticket counter to arrange her admission back into the museum following our coffee break.
“No problem,” she assures me as we head for the door.
The sky is a soft gray, the wind is up, and an inch of new-fallen snow covers the sidewalk. “I didn’t expect this.” I remark.
She tightens her scarf and asks how far it is to the coffee shop.
“Just around the corner. I remember passing it as I came from the train. Are you cold?”
“No. I’m fine. Thank you.”
I raise the collar of my coat against the wind. “Chiara is a lovely name,” I say. “After Santa Chiara of Assisi?”
“Yes. My mother is Italian. Was Italian...well, still is,” Chiara struggles. Raising her eyes to the gray rolling sky, she says, “I’m sorry…my mother died recently, and I haven’t quite figured out how to talk about her. Sometimes I feel so clumsy…and so sad…and sometimes… Forgive me. I’m sorry.”
“No. Not at all... I’m sorry,” I reply. “You must miss her very much.”
“Thank you. Yes, I do.”
I want to take her gloved hand in mine, but I don’t. Our quiet side-by-side shuffle through the snow seems oddly fitting, even comfortable.
“Was your mother ill?” I ask.
“No. We were in a car accident together... It was pretty awful.”
“Ohhh.” Her revelation sets my imagination wild with images of crunching impact, broken glass and terrified people trapped and bleeding. I am without words.
“So I came to France to stay with my aunt for awhile,” she goes on. “She’s a real sweetie.”
“And your stay with her has been good?” I ask.
“Oh, yes. She’s my mother’s sister, and we’re very close... Are you a religious person?” she asks out of the blue.
“Am I a religious person?” I repeat her question, looking over at her as if to probe: where did that come from? “Interesting question,” I answer, as we arrive at the coffee shop. “Let’s get into that over coffee.”
There are only a few people inside. I suggest an empty table by the window. Three people at a table near the door are speaking French, and across the room a young couple in ski clothes are speaking English. Clearly Americans, and I quietly comment on their clothes, noting that there are no ski slopes nearby.
“They’re probably traveling light,” Chiara suggests.
“Of course,” I agree.
She unwinds the long red and white striped scarf from around her head and neck, takes off her coat and gloves, and I take them from her and place them with my coat and gloves on the empty chair next to me. For the first time I see her delicate face and dark eyes framed by her chestnut hair pulled back in a French twist. She’s lovely.
We order coffee and two French pastries.
“Are you?” I ask.
“Am I what?”
“A religious person?”
“Yes, I suppose I am. I care deeply about some things religious. But I asked you first,” she smiles.
“So you did,” I answer. “But I don’t know exactly how to answer that question. I have pretty seriously walked away from any practice of religion over the past few years, but I love medieval art, and because most of it is religious art, I guess, in that sense, I am a religious person. I find Grunewald’s work very moving, especially his Crucifixion panel. I can’t help thinking that he had to be a deeply religious person... I was intrigued by your comment about the Crucifixion panel, as we viewed it together, about Jesus getting it right, and Grunewald understanding that.”
“I was wondering what you thought,” she says, taking a sip of coffee. “You didn’t reply.”
“I found your remark…puzzling,” I explain. “I was hoping then, and I’m hoping now, that we can discuss what you meant by it.”
“Just that,” she replies. “Jesus got it right. His Crucifixion and Resurrection are central to his mission, central to the meaning of his life, and he fully embraced the brutality and the glory of those experiences. He got it right. The perfect counterpoint to all of our centuries of getting it
“And you think Grunewald understood all that?” I ask, taking a bite of the vanilla pastry and carefully aligning my knife and fork with the edge of my white wicker placemat on the dark wooden table.
“That and more.” she replies. “He understood devotion in response to perfect love. His paintings are his devotion, and through them we are moved to find our own. Why are you attracted to his work?” she asks.
“I think it is his ability to portray emotion in his narrative paintings. His graphic detail is amazing…and his color is marvelous, don’t you think?
“I do, but I think you know more about that than I do,” she answers.
“Color is subjective. Your opinion is as valid as anyone else’s,” I reply. Then taking a sip of coffee, I add, “I heard a voice.”
“A voice?” Chiara asks.
“Yes, while we were viewing the Crucifixion panel together. At first, I thought it was you, but then it became clear that it was not. It was pretty disturbing…but in a good way. If that makes any sense. Did you hear it?” I ask.
“No. I think it was for you,” she answers. “Did it seem to be for you? Was it reassuring?”
“Yes. It seemed reassuring, but I’m afraid that I have little experience with voices coming from nowhere.”
Chiara brushes her hair back, and with the same knowing smile I saw when I invited her to coffee, she tips her head to the side, rests her hand on mine and replies, “I doubt it was from nowhere.”
For the first time I am uneasy about our conversation. I know that I am in over my head. I was wrong about her. I misinterpreted cultivated integrity and transparency as naiveté She is not naïve at all; quite the opposite.
I take another sip of coffee. “’Believe in my love.’ That’s what I heard.”
“Yes,” she says softly. “A lovely personal message for you. It’s beautiful. Thank you for trusting it with me.”
I’m staring into her dark eyes and beginning to tear up again. The moment is perfect, with a perfection I don’t understand. “You’re welcome,” I manage to whisper…“We should be going, if you still want to see the rest of the museum before they close.”
“Yes,” she answers, taking a last sip of her coffee and reaching for her scarf and coat.
“I have really enjoyed this,” I say as I prepare to pay the check.
“Me too,” she replies. “Thank you.”
We step out into the late afternoon light. It has stopped snowing, and the sky is a haunting pale yellow. The train station is one direction, and the museum is the other. “I planned to catch the 4:00 train back to Strasbourg,” I say.
“Yes,” she replies.
“Can I email you?” I ask.
“Are you staying with your aunt here in Colmar?”
“No. She lives in Dijon. I have her car, and I’m driving back there this evening.”
We exchange email addresses. I reach out to give her a hug. She responds and presses her cheek against mine. An abstruse tender stirring passes between us. I’m sure she felt it too. We fumble to say our goodbyes, and she is off, down the sidewalk toward the museum.
“I’ll email you,” I call after her.
“Good,” she shouts back, turning and waving as she rounds the corner.
Nota bene: The first part of this story appeared in our Lent/Easter 2015 issue.