A night at the museum

Donna Houtteman, right, a docent for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, shares details of a painting with Curé of Ars, Leawood, parishioners. About 120 people signed up for the Christian art tour. They split up into smaller groups to tour and learn about the Christian paintings, sculptures and more at the museum. Art, Houtteman explained, was used as a way to teach and share the faith.

by Jessica Langdon

Mike and Patsy Gearheart have been to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art many times before, but the night of Feb. 10 was a little different.

“To have a guide is special,” said Mike.

The Gearhearts, members of Curé of Ars Church in Leawood, joined some 120 of their fellow parishioners that night for a special tour of the Christian art treasures of the renowned museum.

Donna Houtteman, a docent at the Nelson for more than a dozen years, led one of the Curé groups through the museum, sharing details about the paintings, frames, statues and other pieces as they walked.

“I’m really not a teacher,” she told the group at the beginning, although she knows her subject very well. “I’m a learner, as well.”

Some of the art, of course, illustrated stories from the Old Testament, like a statue of Adam. Others — like the art of ancient Rome — provided a stark contrast to what was to come.

“If you look around,” Houtteman said as she led them through a room full of cold white stone busts and other sculpture, “there’s nothing Christian in this room.”

But the vibrant colors of their next stop provided a dramatic contrast to the white sculpture in the Roman area, as the tour jumped ahead a few centuries.

“I’m going to let you imagine we’re alive now in the Middle Ages,” Houtteman announced. “Times are really tough.”

Imagine your friends and neighbors — and how a third of them have died, she said, of the bubonic plague. That was the way it was during the time of the plague, when life expectancies reached the mid-20s to early 30s.

“What you’ve learned,” Houtteman said, describing this period of time, “is the most important thing is the salvation of your soul.”
And that idea was expressed in art.

Houtteman stressed that the art created for the church was never meant to be worshipped, although that misconception exists even today. Instead, the paintings and sculptures were visual aids to help teach the faith.

“This is why we have all this great art,” she said.

But most pieces teach far more than the obvious lesson of the parable or saint’s story represented. Symbolism pervades Christian art, so much so that each piece actually has to be decoded for its layers of meaning, or teaching.

For example, the use of two fingers in a painting of the Madonna, said Houtteman, represents the dual natures of Jesus — human and divine.

In another painting, the baby Jesus wears a tiny piece of sea coral, which was thought in the Mediterranean world to ward off evil.

In still a third painting, Mary’s long hair represents her virginity.
Curé parishioners of all ages were enthralled with the tour.

“Art can move you as you see things through other people’s eyes,” said Beckie Yocum, who brought her daughter, 11-year-old Curé fifth-grader Cassidy Unland, to the tour.

“It’s like time travel,” said another parishioner, Annette Stoerman, as the group looked at paintings from the 1500s. “This was really so much more than what I thought it was going to be.”
Mike Gearheart agreed.

“I highly recommend it,” he said. “If they do it again, I’ll be in line.”

Houtteman was gratified by the response.

“I would love every parish in the world to come here,” said Houtteman, noting that Curé of Ars has already sponsored several tours of the museum.

“Monsignor Charles McGlinn loves the arts,” she said, and each tour has seen a good turnout.

It would be a great type of tour for Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes, she said, or eighth-grade confirmation classes, which could do saints tours.

“It’s a really fun way for the students to get to know the lives of saints,” she said.

To request a special docent-guided Christian art or saint-centered tour of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, call the museum at (816) 751-1278, and press 2 when you reach the general menu to get in touch with a scheduler.

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