Icons

It's a weird thing to finally see something that you have been familiar with all your life and see how your imagination compares with the real thing. The Eifel Tower for instance is far bigger than I had imagined it to be; Seurat's paintings of people by the Seine far far smaller. I guess it's this touching base with the furniture we stock our minds with that led to one particularly odd observation this week.

The day before yesterday was the first Sunday of the month and entrance to the Louvre was free. We made it there 15 minutes before opening time but there were already at least a thousand people in the queue before us; by opening time there were 4 or 5 times that many in line behind us, but I guess the good folk at the Louvre are used to that and we were x-rayed vetted and admitted within 10 minutes of the door's opening. Like almost everyone else,acting on the let's get it over and done with policy, we headed straight upstairs to see the Mona Lisa. The scrum around the smirking old visage was 30 deep.She was ensconced behind bullet proof glass about 10 feet or so from the nearest observer. The museum people happily let the forest of arms holding digital cameras do their thing.There must be thousands upon thousands of pictures around of camera flash bouncing off the glass in front of the Mona Lisa. You could see more of the actual painting if you went down to the gift shop and bought a postcard, but we were all paying homage to an icon. Now here's the weird bit. 50 feet from the Mona Lisa are another 4 or 5 Leonardos. One of them, the picture of St. Mary and St. Elizabeth with the infants Jesus and John the Baptist is generally acknowledged to be a far more important work than the Mona Lisa. They have no protective glass and you can stand a metre from them, but no-one was stopping to look. People cruised past, glassily looking through the pictures as they passed. I saw several walk past holding video cameras, looking not at what was on the wall but at what was on the LCD screen.

The Louvre is vast. The crowds are easily swallowed up and once you get away from the great icons - the Venus De Milo, Winged Victory, La Gioconda and so forth - the salons are comparitively empty. We left in time to attend Mass in Notre Dame. Since then we have visited the extraordinary collections in the Orangerie and the Musee D'Orsay. These places pick up the story of art where the Louvre leaves off in the mid 19th Century. A whole gallery of Rodin and room after room of all the people you would come up with if someone bet you to name 50 great painters. The museums, like Paris itself, contain treasures at every turn, too many to mention. Some are icons to be venerated and incorporated anew into my mental landscape; but most are surprises

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